Report: McDowell can adopt measures to become healthier, more inclusive

A new 70-page report contains a list of recommendations for how McDowell County can become a healthier, more inclusive and resilient community. Some of the recommendations include the county adopting a minimum housing standards ordinance, similar to what the city of Marion did, establish a countywide youth program and provide greater access to the county’s new transit system for the more remote sections of McDowell.

This new report was presented to the McDowell County Commissioners during their regular meeting on Monday of last week. Ginger Webb and Paula Swepson Avery with the McDowell Community Engagement Project formally presented these recommendations to county officials. This report was authored by Equitable Community Strategies. Appalachian State University partnered by providing the data.

“Together, we can build a more healthier, united and inclusive McDowell County for all,” said Webb to the commissioners.

“Ultimately, we want to work together with the commissioners to improve McDowell for the long haul,” said Avery on Thursday. “We hope they will adopt this plan as a road map to guide investments, resources, and community development strategies.”

The Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust worked several years ago to establish the McDowell County Community Engagement Project. This effort was set up to work towards improved health and wellness outcomes for the county’s residents. It has resulted in the creation of the community forums for West Marion, Marion East, Old Fort and working with the Centro-Unido Latino Americano group.

Each month, the community forums hold meetings to “provide a safe space for residents to develop a shared vision for their neighborhoods, engage in open and honest dialogue about their challenges, identify barriers, build relationships, and develop plans for action.”

The community forums have resulted in new partnerships between grassroots and institutional leaders to address shared challenges as well as policy changes at the city of Marion, county and town of Old Fort related to housing and transportation. It also seeks to build more unity across race and class; promote healthy eating and active living; and better access to existing resources.

The new report seeks to address issues that are identified as barriers to healthier communities. It covers such subjects as housing, child care, transportation, food and farming, food insecurity, active living, youth engagement, substance abuse, public safety and economic development. It was created from a combination of community surveys and research methods with more than 250 residents in West Marion, Marion East and Old Fort from 2016 to 2018.

You can read the report here at https://bit.ly/2DPNvkI.

Under the subject of housing, the report recommends that McDowell County should adopt a minimum housing standard similar to what the Marion City Council adopted in March 2018. It states 17.2 percent of McDowell adults went without electricity, water or heat in their homes at some point, according to 2018 statistics.

As for transportation, the report calls for the county to build sheltered bus stops for the current and future routes of McDowell Transit. It also calls for the county to expand the routes on the weekends and offer on-demand access to public transportation.

“The challenges related to transportation include families living in remote areas that can’t get to the public transportation spots or within the time frame,” said Webb to the commissioners. “Any transportation barrier limits access to health care facilities, healthy foods, healthy activities, work and school.”

As for child care, the report calls for the creation of an early childhood education and development fund. The report calls for the prioritization of food and farming as an economic driver for McDowell and encourage dollar stores and convenience stores in McDowell to provide healthier food options. Avery talked about how the community gardens can make a difference among residents.

Under active living, the report calls for the creation of a recreational facility in Marion East and a community center for West Marion. It also states that the county should support efforts in West Marion to build a walkway over the U.S. 221 bypass, something that was promised by DOT over 25 years ago. Local parks should be more accessible for the disabled.

The report also focuses on getting local youth more involved in their community. It recommends establishing a countywide youth mentorship and youth empowerment program and the creation of a youth and young adult advisory commission.

The report presented by Webb and Avery again asks the county commissioners to sign the joint statement of unity, which has already been signed by the Marion City Council, the McDowell Board of Education and a host of other community leaders and business owners. This request to sign the unity statement is specifically for new and long-time commissioners.

The report also asks for law enforcement to decrease license checks in areas “where the immigrant community lives, learns, works, prays and plays.” It calls for local officials to “publicly share that local law enforcement is not directly involved in federal immigration and customs enforcement efforts.” Furthermore, the report urges local officials and the school system to develop a plan that would offer guidance to teachers and counselors “on how to support students and parents separated by immigration and customs enforcement issues.”

“Here in McDowell, we have a lot of work to do about inclusion,” said Webb to the commissioners.

Furthermore, Webb and the other representatives of the engagement project said the commissioners and the Old Fort Board of Aldermen should hold a meeting with the community forums. The City Council has held already meetings with both the West Marion and Marion East forums.

The same presentation will be given to the Marion City Council this week and to the Old Fort aldermen in March.

In a similar matter, the commissioners heard a presentation from Zach Wallace, the new executive director of the McDowell Health Coalition, about how the Coalition is working to make McDowell a healthier place.

During his presentation, Commissioner Tony Brown asked Wallace about the latest statistics regarding substance abuse in McDowell and how we compare with other counties. Wallace said he would get those statistics to Brown.

No action was taken by the board after those presentations.

In other business on Monday, Feb. 11, the McDowell County Commissioners:

• Approved the advertising of the 2018 tax delinquents in The McDowell News.

• Took additional action regarding the planned shooting range for McDowell. County officials have previously offered N.C. Wildlife the donation of county-owned land off Ashworth Road for the shooting range. This would be a local match for the federal funding needed to build the facility. In order to proceed with the donation, the state ordered an appraisal of the property which placed a value on the whole tract lower than what would be required for the local match (approximately $63,000 below what is necessary). The county had the option of securing a second appraisal of the property, which could be averaged with the existing one in order to seek a higher value. The commissioners agreed to get a second appraisal.

• Heard a report that the Stacy Hill Road water project is almost complete. The commissioners typically will waive the tap/meter drop fee for a six-month period after a project like this is completed. County staff asked that the start date for this waiver begin on March 1 and end Aug. 31. Beginning Sept. 1, customers would be required to pay the connection fees in place at that time. After a discussion, the commissioners agreed to the six-month waiver for connection fees for customers along the new Stacy Hill Road water line.

• Approved the donation of two surplus vehicles to the McDowell High School CTE programs and several EMS account write-offs.

• Approved a new high-resolution version of the county seal. Under the new version, the county outline is more recognizable and the colors are tweaked to present more of a golden color instead of yellow. The 1845 courthouse was retained in the seal based on informal feedback from the commissioners.

• Talked about an agreement with the McDowell Trails Association. Several months ago, the MTA leadership met with representatives of the city of Marion and the county with the goal of strengthening the partnerships that exist for greenway/trail planning in the community. They talked about having quarterly meetings with representatives of the agencies in order to improve planning and collaboration for trail and greenway projects. They also talked about how the MTA and the governments can work together to make repairs to infrastructure after major storms/flooding events. The commissioners agreed by consensus to talk about this agreement some more and it will be on the agenda for next month.

• Talked about the need to find a new accounting firm to perform the yearly audit of the county’s finances. The firm of Johnson, Price & Sprinkle has done the county’s audit for years and now has informed county officials that it will no longer do that.

• Approved the sale of three county-owned lots. Two of these lots, one at the failed Wild Ridges subdivision and the other on Grayson Street, were a result of tax foreclosures and one on Matilda Avenue was acquired as part of the Eastfield sewer project years ago. None of these lots have use to the county. The sale of the lots would immediately net $1,160 to the county and return them to the tax rolls.

• Agreed to adjourn to 11:30 a.m. Monday to hold a special meeting about the MATCH program.

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