About 75 people turned out for a meeting with East Smithfield residents Thursday night to discuss recreational needs for the minority community.
The meeting was scheduled by Town Manager Michael Scott three weeks after Councilman Marlon Lee, who represents East Smithfield, called for the firing of Parks and Recreation Director Gary Johnson. Johnson was present at the meeting but did not speak. Lee said when he was first elected in 2013 the underserved community had many parks and recreation needs. He said the needs of the community continues to be neglected.
Among his concerns were the closing of the Eva Ennis Pool following the summer of 2009 and the lack of upkeep and recreational programs at Smith Collins Park.
After Lee called for the director’s firing on June 6th, new bleachers were installed at the park, a new scoreboard was ordered and cement was poured across the concession stand. The restrooms were also repainted. All work Councilman Lee told WTSB News would not have happened had he not have spoken out.
During Thursday’s meeting, Scott reminded the audience of primarily African American residents he had been the town manager only 60 days and he could not control the past, only what takes place in the future.
Pool Not A Good Investment
Scott said the Eva Ennis Pool was deemed in 2010 not to be a good investment for the Town and was not reopened that year. However, the Town has spent about $20,000 on lighting and insurance since it closed. Scott called the pool current state “a pond with wildlife in it” and the restrooms in disrepair and filled with wasps.
Scott said the pool needed to be totally reconstruction at a projected cost of $340,000, based on an estimate from Southeast Pools of Raleigh.
Councilman Lee said the Town was negligent in the upkeep of the pool and Smith Collins Park. He cited a 2012 incident when a person rented the park only to have to personally pay for a port-a-potty because the restrooms were not functioning. Lee said he asked about getting more town funding for the park and pool when he was first elected. “When I got on the council the first thing they told me was ‘we need to have a fundraiser.’ Money is not an issue. Whatever (parks and rec) wants to have done they find the money. It’s neglect.”
Residents asked the manager more than a dozen questions including why the pool was allowed to fall in disrepair, were grants available for the rebuilding, and why hadn’t the town reached out to civic and non-profits to form a partnership.
Wendy Ella Mae a candidate for Johnston County Commissioner this November said East Smithfield had been neglected by the Town and was 25 years behind other parts of Smithfield.
Councilman Suggests Raising Taxes
Councilman Roger Wood, who represents West Smithfield began arguing with one resident who asked for the pool to be reopened and more recreational opportunities for minorities. “I don’t mind a pool. Raise taxes. Get a pool in every district.”
Wood said the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center (SRAC) is available to all town residents but claimed Councilman Lee recently said East Smithfield residents “didn’t want to go over there anyway.”
In response two residents commented that the price of a one week pass at the SRAC is “ridiculous” and unaffordable for those on fixed incomes. Another resident said the cost of transportation prevented her children from going.
Discussions then turned to Scott’s recommendation a police substation be located in East Smithfield. Residents unanimously agreed that they didn’t want or need a substation and were never asked if one should be located there. One man commented that when he was a child and living in East Smithfield he was “harassed by police.” Another said police presence would not bring people together. A third person said the community needs a place for children to play and learn. “We need a pool, not the police.”
Councilman Wood interrupted a second resident who was speaking saying, “Put it (the police substation) in West Smithfield. I’ll take it all day long.”
A woman in the audience replied, “I think (Councilman) Wood is out of order.”
Police Relationship With Community
Councilman Lee said the police department needs to be more diverse. He said the town “let go of recreation” in East Smithfield but was “all about putting police in our community.” An African American resident said the police department has a “terrible relationship” with minority communities all over the country and Smithfield was no different. “East Smithfield no longer has a relationship with police like it use to,” one person said.
A former East Smithfield resident commented that the Town can find funds to illuminate trees on Market Street but can’t find money for the poorest community in the city.
Former Parks and Recreation Director Tim Johnson recommended a splash park in place of the pool, which could stay open more weeks every year than a pool and also cost less to operate.
After the meeting, Councilman Lee said he appreciated Town Manager Scott visiting East Smithfield, something he said former manager Paul Sabiston never did. But Lee said the community is left in the same predicament as before. Lee said city department heads are not proactive and only react when something is said.
Rev. Larry Lewis, who pastors a church near Smith Collins Park thinks the Town should be doing more for the residents in his community. He said East Smithfield has been asking for help from the city for years and nothing ever gets done. Rev. Lewis was not optimistic town leaders would listen to the concerns.
Mayor Andy Moore, Mayor Pro Tem Emery Ashley, Councilman Travis Scott and Councilman Steve Rabil were present at the meeting but did not offer any comments.