Editor’s note: This article was updated on Wednesday, Oct. 25 at 6:07 p.m. The section “Severed ties” contains the new information obtained by Xpress since the original version was published.
Asheville, N.C. — A fledgling job training program in Asheville’s Southside neighborhood has struggled to get off the ground since receiving $111,804 from Buncombe County as one of the first recipients of the new Isaac Coleman Community Investment Grants. United Community Development received an official request from the county for corrective action after the county reviewed the organization’s first quarterly report for its Southside revitalization project.
According to United Community Development’s report, a planned masonry job skills program “was tabled” by the organization after negotiations with the masonry skills trainer broke down over disagreements on pay rates, paid time off and other contract provisions. Another reason the UCD gives for its decision to find an alternative to the masonry program is reduced demand for skilled brick masons as less expensive construction materials such as stucco gain favor with commercial contractors.
The discontinuance of the masonry program, the county wrote in its letter of Oct. 9, “is considered to be a performance deficiency.” The letter asks Dee Williams, as project manager for the grant contract, to freeze spending on budget line items totaling $60,078 of the total grant funds. To date, the project has spent $8,051.37 of its budget, which includes $2,000 for a Southside Reunion event held at the Walton Street Park on Sept. 2-3.
Rachael Nygaard, the county’s director of strategic partnerships, says her staff is “brainstorming possible ways forward” in conjunction with United Community Development. In a meeting with the organization on Oct. 13, Nygaard says, county staff advised the group that the goal of the project “was to implement a program that would teach a job ready skill.”
In a revised report dated Oct. 15, Williams proposed a green infrastructure training program to replace the masonry program. “Green infrastructure construction jobs like greenway installation, street tree installation, permeable paver installation, swales construction, green roof installation, cistern sales and installations and maintenance of these are living-wage jobs that folks with a high school diploma can access with training,” Williams wrote.
The Isaac Coleman Review Group, the county advisory team that directed the grant funding, will review United Community Development’s revised proposal, which is due on Oct. 27. According to Nygaard, the county will provide a written response to the UCD’s new proposal by Dec. 1.
The “shared aspiration” of the United Community Development project is “to provide economic, social and cultural opportunities to black people in Asheville, using the Southside community as a template for equitable community economic development which will be led and controlled by the community,” according to a summary provided by Buncombe County. Other groups receiving funding under the Isaac Coleman investments include the ABIPA Cares Cooperative, the Johnston Elementary/Deaverview Community, the Emma Community, the My Community Matter Empowerment Program Collaboration with Positive Changes and Writers in Schools, the Shiloh Community Association and YTL Training/G.R.A.C.E. for Teens and Access for Mothers and Families.
Nygaard says United Community Development is the only recipient of Isaac Coleman funding that has received a request for corrective action from the county. County Commissioner Al Whitesides comments that, “You can’t just say, ‘We are taking a part out of the program,'” noting he is “concerned” about the issues that prompted the county’s letter.
In a political season
Williams, a candidate for Asheville City Council, says she believes the county’s questions about the program have “probably been used against me politically.” As a consultant to the project, however, Williams says she hasn’t been a part of the United Community Development board of directors’ decisions about which job training programs to pursue.
Over the first three months of the program, she says, the group has successfully negotiated a lease at 85 Choctaw St. in the basement of the Worldwide Missionary Baptist Tabernacle Church and has established a relationship with the construction manager of the River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project. Williams hopes participants in the job training program will use their new skills to obtain jobs with the RADTIP.
Williams’ role as project manager for the United Community Development project is budgeted to pay her $31,176 for the year. By the end of the first quarter, she had received $4,800, according to the organization’s report.
Although Williams says the county “acted precipitously without talking to us first” in issuing the letter of corrective action, she remains committed to the project. “My job is to make sure [United Community Development is] back up and running. This has been a snag. It’s been a teachable moment, for them in the organization and for the county.”
Ray Mapp, who serves as vice president of the board of directors for UCD, says the project is on track and he remains supportive of Williams. “Everything is moving forward. I think there are people in the community who hope that we are not successful, who are maybe trying to create some controversy that doesn’t exist.”
Mapp says UCD has been pursuing its goal of developing economic opportunities for marginalized members of Asheville’s Southside community for the past four years. Prior to receiving the Isaac Coleman funding, he says, “We were doing this out of our own pocket.” The group’s motivations are not political, he continues. “Our reason for doing what we’re doing is just to improve the human race.”
Just before United Community Development submitted its performance report for the first quarter on Sept. 22, two county officials received a heads-up that all might not be well in the relationship between UCD and its Southside neighbors. On Sept. 20, Robert Hardy wrote to Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides and Lisa Eby, the county’s communications director. As president of the Southside Organization, Hardy says, he informed the county that his group could no longer collaborate with UCD in light of the discontinuation of the masonry program and concerns over the UCD’s 501(c)(3) status.
According to Hardy, UCD recruited Southside Organization to collaborate as a partner on the economic community development project. But Southside Organization, he writes in his letter, was never formally acknowledged as a partner in the effort by UCD: “Meager ‘lip service’ assistance has been offered, to the organization or the community.”
Regarding the masonry program, Hardy writes, “This program, as was originally explained, was to have a morning and evening class, appealed to community members who could possibly keep their current jobs, and at the same time receive training that would afford them skills which would increase their potential to earn a living wage.”
“After all, they presented the format, they presented the proposal — they being UCD — they presented the individual [masonry instructor] and gave him all types of accolades, as being 40 years in the business … They presented this to us, we bought into it on the basis of what they presented to us. And the bottom line is, it turned out not to be so,” Hardy tells Xpress.
Although he wouldn’t rule out working with UCD on future efforts, Hardy says he stands by his statement in the Sept. 20 letter that the Southside Organization “voted to retract and dissolve our support for the coalition” that had been formed to support the masonry job training program.
Xpress has not been able to confirm whether United Community Development’s 501(c)(3) status was suspended for some period of time during 2017, or what deficiencies might have led to a suspension, if it occurred. Xpress verified with the N.C. Secretary of State that the organization’s registration as a nonprofit corporation has remained “current, active and in compliance” since UCD’s inception in 2014.