A divided Smithfield town council approved a controversial plan Tuesday night to place spotlights on 38 trees alongside Market Street from Front Street, at the Neuse River Bridge, to Brightleaf Boulevard.
In April, town officials considered the proposal which would have cost $210,235 or $5,532.50 per tree. Instead of contracting out the work to a private company, Smithfield leaders looked at having town crews do as much of the work as possible. After the savings, the price was still at $2,974 per tree, or $113,000 for the entire project.
Councilman Travis Scott led efforts at Tuesday night’s council meeting to gain approval. The Town of Smithfield had been toiling with ways to spend a $96,107 NC Downtown Development Revitalization Grant recently received. Scott asked the board to add in nearly $17,000 in taxpayer dollars to the project to pay for the tree lighting, saying it was a “safety issue.”
Scott did not specifically say how illuminating the 38 trees would increase safety at the council meeting but in an email Wednesday said, “By adding the additional lighting to the trees, it would add more light to the area which would make it easier for patrons and store owners who use the sidewalks etc. during the evening and night time hours.” However, most businesses and government buildings in Downtown Smithfield close at 5:00pm. Other options for the grant money were to improve the sidewalks in the 100 block of South Third Street, repaving a town-owned parking lot on Market Street across from the courthouse, make improvements to the greenway, or invest in new signage downtown.
“I struggle with spending $113,000 to light the trees,” Mayor Andy Moore said during discussions.
Mayor Pro Tem Emery Ashley agreed, saying how could the town spend $3,000 to light each tree when the clock at the corner of Market and Third at the library hasn’t worked for years. “Who will do the maintenance?”
Councilman Perry Harris said a decision had to be made within 30 days or the town would lose the grant money.
In a 5-to-2 vote, with Councilman Marlon Lee and Mayor Pro Tem Ashley voting against the plan, the board agreed to add town money to the state grant to light the trees. Funding will allow 2 spot lights at each tree with the wiring run under the pavement. No additional money was earmarked for the maintenance of the lights.
The council did not address repairing lighting in the Library Courtyard, or the clock, both of which have not worked properly for years.
Former Mayor, Business Owner Has Doubts
Former Mayor Daniel Evans, who operates Evans Jewelers on Market Street in Downtown Smithfield, expressed reservations. “I think there are a lot of things we could do with the money that could benefit us more than lighting trees like sidewalk repairs or curb and gutter work. Lighting would be good but not at that cost.”
“There are some things like way finding, signage, sidewalks, things like that are practical functions, things I would love to see us do first. I am not being negative. But once we start the (lighting) program, who is going to pay for the ongoing cost? Who will pay for maintenance?” Evans asked. “The downtown district already has a surcharge for additional money from business owners. Anything more would make it harder for businesses to exist downtown.”