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Sparta Streetscape: Sustainable Systems Strategies or Stubborn Soap Opera?

A Critical Review of the Sparta Streetscape Plans


The slide deck presented here is an updated version of the slide deck presented at the Sparta Downtown Streetscape and Waterline Project Information Session at 6 pm on Tuesday, April 9th at the Sparta Methodist Church.  This session was sponsored and advertised by the Alleghany County Chamber of Commerce.

At the end of this post, there are links provided for the full slide deck in PDF format.  This deck is the same deck given to ACTV on Wednesday, April 10th the morning following the information session.  A link to the YouTube video ACTV video of the April 9th information session will also be provided at the end of this post.

This post goes through the presentation deck on a slide by slide based, seeking a critical review of the content while posing plenty of questions for continued conversation.  Note: We won’t include every slide, such as title slides.

There are ample opportunities for follow-up articles as this project continues.  We’ll explore the Streetscape project elements through the lens of systems wisdom, and compare them to “Deep Shifts” of the fourth industrial revolution (as identified by the World Economic Forum) as well as elements of “work 4.0” as identified by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in Germany.

Slide 3: Infrastructure

This slide begins the Project Context portion of the session—noting that infrastructure is part of a balanced vision for the local economy of Alleghany County—with some form of “economic vitality” being somehow distributed across several categories: Workforce Development, Youth Retention, Healthcare, Infrastructure, Agriculture, Tourism, Small Business Development, and Business Recruitment.

The Alleghany Strategic Economic Development Plan 2015-2020 is visually cited on the slide, presumably as the source of the graphics and categories, but no other information from the Development Plan was explored.  We provide the Development Plan here, and it is also available on the Alleghany County website.

Rest assured we intend to provide one or more follow-up articles exploring this Strategic Economic Development Plan in its entirety.

Slide 4: Public and Private Investment

This slide explains that public and private investment has positive momentum in Alleghany, indicating a list of projects that supposedly represent this positive momentum.  Can we be sure it is positive momentum? How are we defining positive momentum? Who agreed upon the definition, assuming a definition of “positive momentum” has even been agreed upon?

The invested projects listed on the slide include:

Hwy 21 Improvements

Hospital Restructure

Sparta Parkway Construction

NC-VA Water Authority

Sparta Elementary Remodel

Town Water & Sewer Projects

Broadband Internet Infrastructure

Authentically Alleghany

Christmas in Sparta

Where and how quickly can any concerned citizen get a transparent breakdown of how much public and private investment went into each of these projects?  Which organizations and individuals are responsible for the initial and ongoing success of each of these projects?

What are we doing to ensure that these and other projects produce measurable outcomes that can be used as evidence for project success, as we continue to seek additional public and private investment for Streetscape and other “economic vitality” projects in Sparta and the rest of Alleghany County—especially since this slide claims the Sparta Streetscape is an investment in our future.

Slide 5: Economic Development

From an economic development perspective, this slide attempts to show that the Sparta Streetscape project supports multiple dimensions of Alleghany County’s Strategic Economic Development Plan (2015-2020), including Infrastructure, Small Business Development, Business Recruitment, and Tourism.

It seems a bit redundant to mention in the slide deck that the Streetscape project supports Infrastructure 3-c: “Implement Town of Spart Streetscape Plan”.  Luckily future slides will indicate how such infrastructure repairs and replacements may fit into the larger picture of economic vitality.

What about Small Business Development?  How exactly does implementing the Sparta Streetscape Plan either “promote existing small business loan funds” or “develop and publicize clearinghouse of business support services”?  Is there a promotion and publicity budget built into the Streetscape Plan? If so, what is the accountability for the promotions created through this budget? Either way, how are we planning to directly connect the Streetscape expenditures to the established economic goals of Small Business Development?

Similarly, what about Business Recruitment?  How exactly does implementing the Sparta Streetscape Plan help the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County “obtain input from existing businesses on potential support businesses”?  Is a multimillion-dollar streetscape project really necessary before acquiring information from existing businesses about which additional supportive businesses should be recruited to the county and town?  Further, which aspects of the Streetscape Project are intended to “promote assets of Alleghany County in recruitment efforts”? How exactly are these assets to be promoted, and in what ways, specifically, will the Streetscape Project improve these assets and their promotion to potential businesses?  What, if any, are the measurable outcomes we can track to ensure that the assets being promoted for this purpose are actually successful in recruiting new business to the county and town?

Judging from the amount of visual area taken up on the slide—as well as the fact that its eight sub-points outnumber the other three economic categories combined—it seems clear that Tourism plays a major, if not the primary, role in the relationship between the Sparta Streetscape Project and its effect on the “economic vitality” of Alleghany County.  How exactly will the Sparta Streetscape plan help the Town and County to “develop [a] tourism marketing plan” or compete with other municipalities to “advertise in major markets”?  Furthermore, which major markets are the markets of choice for advertising by the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County? Who are the people that the town and county are trying to attract here as tourists?  Are the staff members of the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County certain that their decisions about these major markets are a fair representation of the types of tourists that will be manageable for any service industry that must be created and staffed within the town and county?  Are we certain that we have a ready, willing, and able population of adult residents who can (and want to) serve as full-time employees in this hospitality/service sector as the sector is forced to grow in order to keep up with the development of an expanding tourism economy in the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County?

How exactly will the implementation of a multimillion-dollar streetscape project actually improve the ability of the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County—and the Alleghany County Chamber of Commerce, among organizations intended to promote commerce—to generate marketing materials for current and future visitors, regardless of the reasons these visitors first appear in the County or Town?  Is it not possible to generate said marketing materials in the here and now, without implementing the more tourism-facing elements of Streetscape improvements?

The appearance of more circular logic inherent in “7-j. Implement Town of Sparta Streetscape Plan” as part of the Strategic Economic Development Plan is again disconcerting.  And finally, why is a multimillion-dollar streetscape project at all necessary, in any way shape or form, to “develop [a] web presence for local businesses”? Good websites, complete with SEO, can be built and managed with much less financial investment on a business-by-business basis: for thousands, if not hundreds, of dollars, depending on the size of the business.

Not millions.

Slide 7: Critical Priorities

The first slide in the Project History and Overview section of the presentation delineates several “critical priorities” addressed by the Sparta Streetscape project.  The priorities are as follows:

Pedestrian Safety & Walkability for Shoppers & Seniors

Water & Sewer Infrastructure Assessment & Plan

Accessibility for Emergency Response Vehicles

Curb Appeal for Downtown Merchants

Driving Lane Size for Vehicles of Varying Sizes

Parking Availability

Coordination of Underground Utilities

Diversity of Funding

Alignment with Broader Economic Development Plans

How are these priorities critical, for whom, and to what end?  How will we know the criticality of these priorities has been sufficiently satisfied by the implementation of various elements of the Sparta Streetscape project?

According to Google Definitions, critical is an adjective, and its third meaning seems most relevant to this slide: “(of a situation or problem) having the potential to become disastrous; at a point of crisis.”  The third alternative description listed in the third definition is “having a decisive or crucial importance in the success, failure, or existence of something.”

It seems as though Water & Sewer Infrastructure is the only thing on the list provided that comes anywhere close to a “critical” priority for the Town of Sparta, and none would be critical priorities for Alleghany County.

What evidence do we have that these priorities are currently critical, and what evidence will we be collecting during construction (and upon implementation) of the various elements of the Streetscape project to ensure these critical priorities have been satisfied accordingly?

Slide 8: The Risk(s) of Doing Nothing

According to this slide, there are several risks inherent in “doing nothing” about Streetscape, which we assume means that the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County would decide to move forward with none of the three Streetscape Project options to be highlighted in the next slides.  That being said, these are the basic risks identified:

Risk 12 years’ delay until next DOT scheduled resurfacing of US Hwy 21

Risk forfeiting $700,000 in grant money

Risk forfeiting low-interest rates on financing, [with interest rates] projected to increase

Risk escalating construction costs

Risk decline in property values, forcing eventual tax rate increase

Risk potential breakages in 80+-year-old water line

Risk dangers and traffic issues of flooded roadways due to [the] non-functioning stormwater system

Risk of disincentivized private investment in properties and businesses

Many of these understandable risks are directly associated with the infrastructural elements of the Streetscape project, including the water line replacement and resurfacing of a federal highway (US 21), which is beholden to the scheduling of the Department of Transportation.

However, which specific grant(s) are potentially lost with “doing nothing”?  Is it one funding organization, or multiple organizations? How much will construction costs escalate if some portions of the Streetscape are delayed to future phases of the overall process of “economic vitality” for Sparta and Alleghany County?  Which property values will decline: commercial, residential, industrial—and by how much? How can we accurately compare the potential loss of property values from “doing nothing” with the Streetscape Project to any number of projected tax rate increases?

Which tax rates would be increased?  Property tax? Sales tax? New taxes that don’t yet exist?

Slides 9 & 10: Three Project Options

These two slides present three options of increasing cost for the Streetscape Project, two of which would be funded by the Town of Sparta (and loans and grants)—currently priced at $2.2 million and $3.5 million, respectively—and one of which would require additional funding from Alleghany County, currently priced at $4.9 million.

The $2.2 and $3.5 million versions of the project are versions that cover major infrastructure work—replacing the waterlines and paving of Main Street from Trojan Avenue to Grandview Drive—as well as the option of sidewalk replacement through a portion of downtown Sparta along Main Street from Doughton Street to Halsey Drug, which doesn’t quite make it to Cheek Street.  The $4.9 million version of the project, with costs to be shared by the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County, include the following additions:

Enhanced safety for pedestrians/traffic

Enhanced sidewalks (width and “bump outs”)

Remove poles/wiring

Doughton St to Cheek St. (Pizzeria)

Replace traffic lights with mast iron posts

Add new pedestrian lighting

Bury fiberoptic cable

Paint crosswalks

Install new signage

Possibly provide new benches, trashcans, bike stands, kiosks, potted flower vases

Many of the features in the most expensive option seem to be beyond necessity, and while each would be nice to have as a feature over the long term of “economic vitality” of Sparta and Alleghany County, can we actually justify the need for each of these features in both the short and long term?  Can we tie each of these features directly back to specific elements of the Alleghany Strategic Economic Development Plan?  How can we be sure that each of these “non-necessity” elements of the $4.9 million version of the Streetscape plan are worth the costs?  Will we be gathering evidence to clearly indicate the return on investment for the additional expense each of these items adds to the most expensive of the three plan options?  For example, what exactly is inherent in “Enhanced safety for pedestrians/traffic” and what will it cost?

Is it possible to find a happy medium between the $3.5 million and $4.9 million versions of the plan?  Can each of these “non-necessity” elements—such as mast iron traffic lights, pedestrian lighting, new signage, benches, bike stands, (tourism?) kiosks, etc.—be itemized and decided upon separately, with some to be included in a fourth version of the Streetscape plan: say, $3.8 million?  Perhaps many of these itemized elements could be funded by a separate organization such as the Alleghany County Chamber of Commerce, or entirely through private investment?

In slides 11 and 12, the presentation briefly covers tax increase options to cover the costs of financing the Town and County funding for the three currently published versions of the Streetscape project, as well as other potential sources of funding, including ARC grants, funding allocations from the State of North Carolina, grant funding from the Golden Leaf Foundation, and private contributions.

Here’s what the Golden Leaf Foundation has to say about its open grants program: “Grants in this program are not expected to exceed $200,000. Since requests are likely to far exceed funds available, the Foundation will be looking for projects in the following focus areas of Agriculture, Economic Development, Workforce Preparedness, Healthcare, Education and Community Vitality.”

Following a couple of slides (13 and 14) containing visual mockups and diagrams of sections of the proposed Streetscape project, the presentation transitions into the “Project Potential” section.

Slide 16: Time For Investment

This slide outlines several points of potential improvement inherent in the Sparta Streetscape project, with the implication that each of these points is an outcome to be expected with the completion of the Streetscape project.  The completion of the Streetscape project is expected to:

Improve aesthetics

Enhance livability

Augment attractiveness

Increase visitors

Attract residents

Drive business investments

Propels economic development

Create more, better jobs

Each of these identified potential outcomes is fodder for additional exploratory essays, which are forthcoming.  However, we’ll touch briefly on each point here, with a series of preliminary questions.

What are the aesthetics to be improved, and how?  How much improvement can be expected? How will we know that the differentiation in aesthetics has been achieved by this project?

What is the definition of livability in reference to the Streetscape project?  In what ways will this version of livability be enhanced by elements of the Streetscape project?  How is the success of this enhancement being defined? How will we know that this defined success in enhancement has been achieved at all, much less achieved specifically because of the implementation of these Streetscape elements?  For example: Do we know for sure that “enhanced sidewalks” and “buried fiber-optic cable” have a direct effect on enhanced livability?

Similarly, what defines attractiveness in a town?  How can we measure an increase in attractiveness to ensure that elements of the Streetscape project have contributed to a cost-effective and appropriate increase in the attractiveness of the town?

We could ask similar questions about the remaining outcomes, although an increase in visitors and residents is much easier to quantify.  That being said: How do we ensure that these Streetscape elements are effectively bringing in tourists and residents from target demographics that are most appropriate for the best possible future “economic vitality” of the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County?

What are the best kinds of tourists to attract to Sparta?  What are the kinds of residents that represent the best long-term future for any kind of economy in Alleghany County?

The same sort of clarity needs to be found concerning the idea of job creation.  What kinds of jobs can be created specifically through these Streetscape elements?  Will we have more Town and County employee jobs to help with the maintenance of all these new Streetscape features?  Will these jobs pay a living wage with benefits?  What about any jobs created by the businesses that might be convinced to move here (or start here) because of the completion of the Streetscape?   Where will these businesses be located? Will their storefronts be touching the Streetscape? How many jobs will these businesses create? Will these new jobs be full-time “career-type” jobs with a salary and benefits, the kind of job a person can expect to make a long term living with?  Will families be able to have these jobs and raise children in Sparta for twenty years? In other words, when the potential benefit of the Streetscape is “more, better jobs”—how exactly are we defining “better” jobs, and who is it that gets to decide what these “better” jobs are?

Slide 17: Opportunities to Leverage Investment

While this slide was glossed over fairly quickly during the information session, we think the point of it is to show how the three different price point versions of the current Streetscape plan could be used to generate additional investments in the Town of Sparta improvements beyond the currently proposed plan.

The three opportunities listed on the slide are:

  1. Private Investment
  2. Historic Tax Credit Investments
  3. Opportunity Zone Financing Opportunities

Obviously, private investment is an option, which seems like it would go hand in hand with several other segments of the Alleghany Strategic Economic Development Plan 2015-2020, especially Workforce Development, Small Business Development, and Business Recruitment.

Here is a fact sheet about Historic Tax Credits from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, as well as resources about implementing HTCs from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers, and the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office.

What is an Opportunity Zone?  According to the United States Internal Revenue Service:

“An Opportunity Zone is an economically-distressed community where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment. Localities qualify as Opportunity Zones if they have been nominated for that designation by the state and that nomination has been certified by the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury via his delegation of authority to the Internal Revenue Service.”

The United States Treasury has a web page dedicated to resources concerning Opportunity Zones, where they are, and how the process works, including eligibility requirements.

At first glance, private investment, Historic Tax Credits, and Opportunity Zones all seem to be viable options for moving toward economic vitality in the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County.  However: Can’t each of these three options be pursued regardless of the completion of any of the three options of the current Streetscape plan?

Slides 18-22: Streetscape Numbers, Tax Impacts, and Property

These slides attempt to show the relationship between our currently low town and county property (and sales?) tax rates with the revenue generated to offset the costs of paying for the Streetscape project.  We encourage you to run these formulas on your own property value.

While the numbers shown here may seem relatively inconsequential to many people and business interests, we have reason to believe there is a substantial portion of the population of Alleghany County who subsist on fixed incomes, where any increase in taxes is significant.  This is something to consider with any municipal project, of course.

Concerning the personal impact upon a taxpayer: What if a taxpayer doesn’t support this increase?  What if a majority of county taxpayers don’t support this increase in taxes for the purpose of supporting the additional $1.4 million of “non-necessity” items in the most expensive option of the three proposed for Streetscape?  

How much difference would it make in the timeline of the project for the Alleghany County Commissioners to reserve any decision on the $1.4 million to be borrowed and contributed by the county until after a vote on the issue can be held during the next election in November?  As an alternative—or perhaps an initial exploration leading to an official vote—how difficult would it be to deliver a short survey to every household in the county asking for a “yes/no” response concerning an agreement to an increase in taxes for this project?

Concerning the potential for declining property values to drive up the tax rate (Slide 21), what is the worst that would happen if there was a 10% decline in tax revenue, which, according to the numbers shown, would equal a decrease in $970,000 in revenue?  According to 2018/2019 Alleghany County Budget Message, the annual budget for the county is $17.5 million (trimmed from $18.9 million), with $9.3 million in revenue from property tax and $2.7 million in revenue from sales tax. If we take the projected $970,000 loss in revenue from a 10% decrease in property value and divide that by the entire “General Fund Revenue Projections” of $17.5 million, the result is 0.05542857, which in terms of percentage, is approximately 5.5% of the $17.5 million 2018/2019 county budget.

Slide 23: One Step in the Journey

With what we perceive to be an effort to provide context to the argument for three different levels of expenditure on the proposed Sparta Streetscape plan, this slide enumerates seven ways that the Streetscape project is but one piece of a larger puzzle, as mentioned during the information session.  As shown on the slide, these seven items are:

Market our county

Focus on early childhood and afterschool programs

Support K-12 education

Enhance focus on [the] community college in the county

Collaboration of government, organization, individuals

Focus on economic development –> JOBS

Grow or Die

How is the county being marketed, and to whom?  Which aspects of the county are being marketed, and why, and to what end?  What is the combined annual marketing budget for all organizations tasked with marketing the county to various demographics, and has anyone done a cost-benefit analysis on whether or not these marketing efforts have worked and will continue to work in any sort of cost-effective manner?  More specifically, how does the Streetscape project relate directly and indirectly to the rest of the elements of Alleghany County being marketed now or in the future?

What is the relationship between the Streetscape and early childhood and afterschool programs?  What about K-12 education and community college? How might these initiatives help each other improve?  Concerning the emphasis on all levels of education, why doesn’t the Streetscape project currently extend to Alleghany High School, Sparta School, or the Alleghany Center of Wilkes Community College (as well as the Alleghany branch of the Northwestern Regional Library), despite the proximity of each of these institutions to downtown and Main Street?  Should it not be easier for schoolchildren, community college students, and teachers to walk safely to downtown businesses after classes—especially when the first “critical priority” listed for the Streetscape project (slide 7) is pedestrian safety and walkability?

Again, concerning economic development and jobs: which jobs, and why?  For how long can we expect these jobs to exist? How many jobs can be brought to Sparta, and will these jobs translate directly to livelihoods for families who already live here?

A binary concept such as “Grow or Die” seems rather short-sighted as a contextual element intended to show the interrelatedness between any number of combinations of puzzle pieces.  While many assume that an economy must grow to continue to exist, this is just not true.  There are many economic models that serve as an alternative to such a narrow “Grow or Die” mentality, such as steady-state economics, which is defined as follows:  “A steady-state economy is an economy made up of a constant stock of physical wealth (capital) and a constant population size. In effect, such an economy does not grow in the course of time. The term usually refers to the national economy of a particular country, but it is also applicable to the economic system of a city, a region, or the entire world.”

The Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy provides ample information on the topic, as does the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement at the University of Washington.  The idea of Alleghany County—or, more realistically, the Upper New River watershed—as an achievable steady-state economy will be explored in more detail in future articles.

Presentation Conclusion

The slide deck concludes with an abbreviated list of Streetscape projects in other towns, as well as a nominal indication of some rough calculations of Return on Investment from one of the identified Streetscape projects in West Jefferson.  To give a sense of potential return, we can compare the total seven-year accumulation in sales tax for West Jefferson as a result of the Streetscape project, shown on Slide 26.

If we take the current Alleghany county sales tax revenue of $2.7 million per year and multiply this amount times seven years, we get $18.9 million.  $134,175 divided by $18,900,000 = 0.00709920, which is approximately 0.7% of total sales tax revenue over seven years.  $1.4 million borrowed and invested by Alleghany County divided by $134,175 total increased sales tax revenue accumulated over seven years in West Jefferson equals 10.4341345.  This means it would take approximately 10.4 seven-year accumulations of increased sales tax revenue at this rate to equal the initial borrowed investment. According to these calculations, it would take about 72 1/2 years to accumulate enough sales tax to pay off less than 30% of the proposed $4.9 million investment in the Sparta Streetscape (the County’s obligation of $1.4 million is 28% of $4.9 million).

If we divide $4.9 million by the same seven-year accumulation of $134,175, we get 36.5194708, or approximately 36.5, which multiplied by seven years gives us a total of 255 1/2 years as how long it would take to pay off the initial $4.9 million streetscape investment with sales tax at that rate of increased accumulation.  To be clear: that’s 255 years to pay off a $4.9 million loan (without even considering interest), assuming a return similar to the benchmark documented in West Jefferson.

Obviously, these are just a few quick “back-of-the-envelope” calculations, but these numbers seem to call for a more thorough exploration of the costs and benefits of these Streetscape improvements, as well as some alternative mechanisms for covering these costs—as well as future expansions of the Streetscape.  And we haven’t even begun to consider the increasingly expensive ongoing maintenance costs associated with these improvements.

And…Aesthetics, Again

One last thing, considering Tourism and the logic of using the Sparta Streetscape plan to improve aesthetics (slide 16) of downtown Sparta—which, remember, has little (if anything) to do with the critical water and road surfacing infrastructure issues.  When it comes to aesthetics, though, we cannot deny the importance of all things that enter into our senses when we are experiencing any environment. In this case, we have the Soap Opera, which is a dilapidated commercial property sitting at the intersection of Doughton and Main Streets in downtown Sparta, quite literally serving as a boundary element of the currently planned aesthetic upgrade of the Streetscape plan.

Like it or not, this “eyesore” is an integral part of the aesthetic of downtown Sparta, regardless of how many millions are spent in the three current versions of the proposed improvement plan.

However, maybe it’s an educational opportunity!  We could use the Soap Opera property —and the refusal of the property owners to sell the property for a reasonable price—as a prime example of what is trying to be accomplished by the Streetscape project, and the (current and future versions of the) Alleghany Strategic Economic Development Plan, to help educate residents and tourists alike in the real obstacles present in economic and environmental progress in the Town of Sparta and Alleghany County as we face a postcapitalist economy (or at least the Fourth Industrial Revolution).

At the intersection of Doughton and Main Streets, right at the corner of First Community Bank, we could erect a metal information kiosk, much like those found on the Blue Ridge Parkway or any state or national park.  The purpose of this information kiosk would be to explain the interplay of aesthetics, tourism, jobs, Superfund sites, stubborn old property owners, and economic vitality (or the lack thereof).

That sign certainly wouldn’t cost $4.9 million, $3.5 million, $2.2 million, or even $1.4 million.  We figure it would cost a couple of thousand dollars at most, including the cost of a copyeditor.

Finally: as promised, here are the links to the ACTV YouTube video of the information session and the full slide deck PDF from the information session.