Monday, June 29, 2015

How close does Cintra's road get to Governor Pat McCrory?

Whether one calls it lobbying, public relations, business development, or crisis management, what you are really hiring when you employ somebody for any of the above functions is a "fixer".  That's someone who gets things done that might not be do-able otherwise.

Lobbying is big business.  There is lots of money involved.  Lots of connections to work.

It is also one of the stops many people in politics take in between campaigns while working their way up the ladder in the political world.

Recently, a poster over at the Exit 28 Ridiculousness Facebook page posted something about Cintra having their own registered lobbyists in North Carolina, so that seemed like a good place to start looking into how that part of the proposed $650 million I77 HOT lanes project has panned out.

WARNING!  The rest of this post is a bit stomach churning.  Reading any further may require some Pepto Bismol.  Get some now if necessary.

The interconnected names that come up when looking at the people and firms involved in the past and present lobbying efforts employed by Cintra and related firms will make your head spin.  Official "lobbyists" are required to register as such with state and federal authorities.  However, as mentioned above, influential people working in the firms involved in lobbying are not always officially lobbyists.  They don't have to register as such.

In Cintra's case this story starts with someone who is a lobbyist.  According to the NC Secretary of State website, Cintra employs three lobbyists in North Carolina from a law firm named Brooks Pierce.   One of those lobbyists is a man named Chris McClure.  McClure was hired by the firm in January of 2013.

Who is Chris McClure?

Well, one of his previous jobs was as the Executive Director of the North Carolina Republican Party.  That is the top staff position within the state party. McClure held that position from 2007-2009.  McClure has also done work for Texas Governor Rick Perry according to his bio.  (That will be important later.)

During the 2008 campaign as head of the state party staff, McClure certainly would have crossed paths with the next person in this story, one Russell Peck.

During the 2008 election cycle, Russell Peck, was in charge of the North Carolina operation for the McCain-Palin campaign.  That also was the cycle where McCrory was on the ticket in his first run for governor.

The connections between McMclure and Peck go further than this however.  In 2009 Peck took over from McClure as the next Executive Director of the NCGOP.  They also both serve on something called the NC Advisory Committee of the US Global Leadership Commission.  (There are a number of interesting names on this list.)

During 2012 Russell Peck surfaces again as Pat McCrory's campaign manager during McCrory's second run at the governor's mansion.

After managing MCCrory's successful campaign, Russell Peck went to work for a firm named Mercury LLC.  Mercury's LinkedIn profile describes its business with this.

Mercury is a high-stakes public strategy firm.

We use our expertise and reach to gain competitive advantage for clients. Our expertise comes from extensive must-win campaign experience and operating successfully at the highest rung of business, government, politics and media. Our reach is the ability to use strategic intelligence to mobilize the message and persuade the toughest audiences.

We have proven results for prominent figures, leading advocacy groups and the world’s most successful companies

That's a long winded way of saying lobbyist.

Russell Peck is listed as the point of contact for Mercury in North Carolina on the firm's website.  Peck is only registered to lobby for one firm in North Carolina.  That firm has nothing to do with
with transportation, but it would seem to be a limited work load for someone in the lobbying biz who has worked so closely to the governor.

Interestingly, according to, Mercury appears to have done work in the past for a company called Macquarie.  Macquarie has been a business partner with Cintra on multiple toll projects in the US and Canada, including some work in Texas.

Then of course there is Moore & Van Allen.

Readers may remember when Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dumont Clarke recused himself during the vote on a resolution by the county asking the state to delay financial close.  This was on May 19th.  Clarke sited a potential conflict of interest with a client and the project.

Moore & Van Allen happens to also be the firm where Governor Pat McCrory himself passed the time as an employee between his gubernatorial runs.  According to this article McCrory was hired because he could "add value to what lawyers could do."

The firm has also hired a close McCrory aid, Brian Nick, after McCrory became governor in 2012.

So to sum it all up, here you have two former heads of the NCGOP staff working as lobbyists.  One works directly for Cintra the other for a firm that has done work for a close Cintra business partner in the past.

Both of these men worked closely with Governor McCrory.

Then you have the firm where McCrory himself worked as a non-lobbying lobbyist having an employee having to recuse from a County Commission vote because of a conflict of interest somehow related to the project.

Remember the comment earlier in this post about Cintra lobbyist Chris McClure working for Governor Rick Perry in Texas?

Well, this whole twisted tale sounds eerilly like this article outlining lobbying efforts with close ties to the governor, including Cintra's, in Texas.

This all took about two hours of googling to pull together.  Someone with more time on their hands and resourses available should really look into this.

Who knows what you might find?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Is it possible to have a fair Planning Board hearing on The Narrow Pasage? Doesn't seem likely.

Monday's Planning Board meeting is shaping up to be considerably more interesting than most - to say the least.  The main driver of interest is he Narrow Passage project.

As mentioned here, election related swirl and scare tactics have already spun up around the planned development.

That swirl continued on Thursday.  Only hours after the recent column in the Herald Weekly was published, a Facebook page calling itself  "Preserve Davidson" popped up.  It is a site launched specifically to oppose Narrow Passage - supposedly to "offset substantial lobbying by Narrow Passage LLC."

Coincidence?  Who knows?

The site is full of what Mayor John Woods likes to call "misinformation".  It appears more designed to mislead and scare people rather than to inform.

What is also clear is that the participants in the site make it unlikely Narrow Passage will get an unbiased hearing on Monday.  Planning Board members Brunson Russum, John Kennedy, and George Berger have all "liked" various postings on the site.

But that's neither all that surprising, nor is it too troubling.

On the other hand, this message sent by the town Planning Director , Jason Burdette, is both of those things.  Burdette sent the below mail Thursday evening to the entire Planning Board.

Subject: Planning Board  
It’s come to my attention that the representative for Narrow Passage (Susan Irvin) has reached out to members of the Planning Board requesting individual meetings to address any concerns you might have about the project. As a legislative board, the applicant is permitted to do this. However, in fairness to other members of Planning Board, I would recommend against meeting with the applicant in advance of the meeting. It’s important that any conversations about this project with the developer be available to all members of the Planning Board.

          Jason Burdette, AICP
Planning Director
Town of Davidson

So, the town's official position is that it is OK for Planning Board members to actively participate in a clearly biased effort to stop a project, but it is not OK for Planning Board members to actually educate themselves on the actual details of the project.

Got that? Good!

Yes, Monday will be interesting.

Narrow Passage starts election season early in Davidson

This column originally appeared in the Herald Weekly.

Filing for this year’s local elections doesn't start for a couple of weeks, but election-related shenanigans already seem to have started in Davidson.  As is typical in small-town politics, accusations are made, emails circulate, and unfounded rumors fly.

One such issue initiating some of that election related swirl is the proposed Narrow Passage development working its way through the town planning process for more than a year now.  This is the same development mentioned in a previous column regarding property rights and how Davidson’s view of those rights impacts its decisions

The issue at stake is whether or not this project should be approved by the Town Board – bringing new development to the town’s northeastern Extra Territorial Jurisdiction, or ETJ.   The proposed 59 acre site sits right at the intersection of Rocky River and Shearers Road.  It's that location that has generated opposition.

In another area publication, local resident Ed Harris penned a strongly worded editorial about a month ago.  He lamented the possibility that three Davidson Commissioners, aka a majority of those elected by the voters, might actually approve the project.

However, that editorial paled in comparison to an email that landed in my inbox last week.  This email from someone who can accurately be described as a very well connected town insider used language that can best be defined as fear-mongering.

For example, the emailer likened approval of the project to “allowing our award winning community based approach to devolve into a politically idealistic shift that embraces an environmentally disastrous imbalance between individual property rights and the rights of the common good.”  The emailer has a similar lament about “three of our five commissioners” and  goes on to say a “small group” is working to stop the project.

However, the emailer also encouraged people to educate themselves on the project.

Fortunately, that is easy enough to do because Davidson Town Hall spent about $9,000 tax dollars last month to educate itself on this project and rural planning in general by bringing in nationally renowned rural planning guru – Randall Arendt.

Below is what Mr Arendt had to say about the Narrow Passage in a memo to the town after his visit.

“It is my belief that the ultimate layout of this development would probably not change much, if at all, whether it is approved in a timely manner or whether approval were delayed until after a Small Area Plan has been devised, debated, and adopted – a process that could take 6-12 months. Its layout reflects the opportunities and constraints of this site, and any good plan for it would probably bear a very strong resemblance to what we came up with earlier this week”.

Arendt goes on to say “it is my belief that a plan update process would not alter the reality that the southeastern end of the ETJ is currently more suburban than rural, unlike the areas north and west of Runneymede and Maple Way Drive.”  Additionally “Narrow Passage and the property just to the north of it are virtually surrounded by suburban house lots, nothing very rural.”

Finally, and maybe most importantly, for those who are at all concerned about this project Arendt says this.  “I do not believe that approval would create any kind of legal precedent, once the town updates its planning documents and regulations. Adopting a moratorium to prevent new applications being filed during the plan update process would probably be a wise idea.”

Once you get past the planning lingo, the basic idea from Randall Arendt is that the proposal presents a good design and does not open the floodgates for new development as those who oppose it fear.

There are also other facts on the table that address specific concerns emailed and printed elsewhere.

They include a lower number of planned lots – as low as 32, down from 47, if the builder takes advantage of the town’s newly lowered Payment in Lieu for the affordable housing obligation.  Another is that according of Randall Arendt the planned use of septic systems is more environmentally friendly than the town-required installation of sewer for neighborhoods of this size and density.

The project has gone through a significant amount of public input including the three day session where Arendt was brought in at the town’s request.  Additional delays in the decision making process are unwarranted.

It is true that people, particularly Commissioners, should educate themselves, but the way to do it is not to listen to ideologically driven emailers intending to instill fear in an election season.

That education process continues Monday when this project goes before the town Planning Board.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

I77 Activism Blurs Political Lines...Precedent for Success in North Carolina

As someone who has been active in politics for a while now, one of the most interesting aspects of the activism surrounding the I77 HOT Lanes is how much it crosses political boundaries when it comes to the people involved.

It is clear from knowing some of the people personally and from reading comments in cyberspace from a wide variety of others that no one political label would cover the entire group.  If everyone who is actively working against this proposed plan were all in a room and someone asked people to raise their hands for the labels Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, moderate progressive, libertarian, or any other label, it is clear that numerous hands would go up for each one.

The opposition to this covers so many sub-groups it is hard to overstate how widespread it had become.  Rarely will you see this kind of teamwork across political lines, but there is precedent for it in North Carolina.

In eastern North Carolina there was a widespread effort that stopped the most powerful force on the planet from doing what it wanted.  That was the effort in the late 2000's to stop the US Navy from building a facility called the "Outer Landing Field" or OLF.

Here's an excerpt on the OLF from a piece I wrote back in 2012.  Unfortunately, the links don't work. The NOOLF site went dark - because it was no longer needed.

From April 2012...

Ever heard of the OLF?  If you've ever driven through some of the counties in eastern NC or Virginia, you would. signs dot the roadsides, and some have obviously been there for years.  Last year, the organization won a major battle in its long-running war of attrition.  Here's a quote from the most recent news item posted on the website.

"The U.S. Navy called a Jan. 27 truce in its 10-year battle to build a practice airfield in North Carolina or Virginia.

The proposed Outlying Landing Field (OLF) for practice landings and takeoffs by carrier-based jets from Norfolk, Va., stirred strong opposition in both states, but none more than in North Carolina, where the Navy first attempted to obtain land for the field a decade ago.

'The Navy made the right decision,' said Vance Aydlett Jr., chairman of the Currituck County Board of Commissioners, 'The Navy promised that it would not build an OLF in a community that did not want it, and today it followed through on the promise.'"

NOOLF is a successful activist driven effort to stop government overreach, and it provides a prime example of how diverse groups can come together to stop such efforts - even as they attack the issue from totally different perspectives.  Take a look at the site's "allies" page and you will see groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and FreedomWorks.

You would never expect to see that would you?  Those groups could not agree on anything could they?  The answer to both questions is "No".  However, on this effort they come at the issue from different perspectives and end up in the same place, and that place allows them to agree.  The OLF is bad for the community for environmental reasons and  property rights reasons.  So, they agree to fight it together.

Fast forward to today and the fight against the toll lanes.  One can certainly see a lot of parallels to the efforts of and Facebook groups like "Exit 28 Ridiculousness".

Always remember, no challenge is too big when "the people" work together.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Bradford, Jeter not to blame for marriage bill override

The “veto” used to be a powerful weapon in the Governor’s arsenal, but recently it has not been an effective one for North Carolina’s chief executives.  With veto-proof super majorities in both houses of the legislature, the General Assembly now regularly overrides gubernatorial vetoes – sometimes with ease and sometimes only after “gaming the system”.

Last week’s veto override of Senate Bill 2 in the House – a bill which allows magistrates and registrars to “opt out” of performing any marriages if they object to performing same-sex marriages due to a religious objection - definitely falls into the latter category.

Before getting into the details of how the House override occurred, here is a little history on the recent demise of the veto’s power.

Over the last ten sessions of the NCGA there have been 34 gubernatorial vetoes issued.  Sixteen of those vetoes have been overridden.  Fifteen of the sixteen overrides have occurred since the Republicans took over both houses of the legislature after the 2010 elections.  Eleven of the fifteen Republican-led overrides were against Democrat Beverly Perdue.  However, maybe more surprising is that four out of five vetoes from Republican Governor Pat McCrory have also been overridden by the heavily Republican legislature.

This recent history shows where the real power lies in Raleigh.  It’s in the General Assembly, not the Governor’s mansion.  But even with all that power, sometimes the leadership in the legislature has to work at it to achieve the 3/5ths vote, or 60% super majority, in each chamber to snub the Governor.

So, what does all this have to do with local politics?

Well, it just so happens that all three local legislators, Senator Jeff Tarte, and Representatives Charles Jeter and John Bradford all supported the Governor’s opposition to this bill.  All three voted against its initial passage, and Senator Tarte was one of only three Republican Senators to vote against the override in the Senate..

The Senate override however was the easy part.  That vote was 32-16 in favor  – easily surpassing the 60% mark of the members present.  Two of the total 50 senators were absent for that vote.

One would think absent voters would not matter, but in the subsequent NC House vote they would be necessary to ensure a successful override attempt.

In the House override vote last Thursday, 10 members were not present – four Democrats and six Republicans.  That dropped the total number of “yes” votes required to 66.  Those favoring overriding the governor had 69 votes in their pocket, so a vote was called and the bill was overridden.

As soon as the vote occurred Thursday morning, attention turned to those who were absent which allowed for the smaller number of votes required.  That attention – particularly on the political left - quickly focused on the three Republicans who voted against the original bill but who were not on hand last Thursday to vote against the override.  Two of those three Republicans were local Reps Charles Jeter and John Bradford.

The questions being asked in cyberspace implied the Republican no-shows deliberately sandbagged the vote by not showing up and thus allowed the override to succeed.  The implication was that they had not stood by their original votes.  After all, last Thursday was the first excused absence this legislative session for each of them.  It seemed suspicious.

Unfortunately for those critics, the math doesn't support their position.

Everything else being equal, even if Jeter, Bradford and fellow Republican Rep Jon Hardister who all voted against the original bill had been on hand last Thursday, the override would have still been successful.  Or put another way, their absence did not cause it to pass.

Rep Jeter was out with a stomach bug.  He says he would have been there, but knew his vote would not have altered the outcome.  Rep Bradford knew new was going to be out that day and let the Governor know in advance that his opposition to the bill had not changed.

But what about the other absent members?

There were also four Democrats and three other Republicans not present last Thursday.  After analyzing their previous votes, it appears this override likely would have occurred even if the full House membership had been present.  If all of the other absent members had been present and voted the same way they did when the bill passed originally, the vote would have been 72 – 48 – or exactly 60%.

That however might have been too close for comfort for those wanting the override to succeed, so they waited until the odds were in their favor.  In doing so, they gave a lesson in power-politics and dealt another blow to the power of the veto.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Funding I77: A question of political will, not money

Interesting numbers on transportation in the just released Senate budget proposal...

From the Carolina Journal...

The Senate proposal also eliminates a $215 million annual transfer from the Highway Fund to the General Fund to pay for the Highway Patrol. Senate leaders say this change, plus the additional $100 million a year additional income from DMV fees would provide sufficient funds for highway construction, thus eliminating the need for a $1.5 billion transportation bond package proposed by McCrory.

“The idea on transportation is that rather than borrow a billion or billion-and-a-half dollars, we could put $300-plus million annually — additional dollars — into transportation,” said Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. “The feeling was we could build the projects that are not being built presently and do it without borrowing money.”

Now, Governor Pat certainly can't like that at all.  He and his team have been running around the state giving the hard sell on his bond package.

Hardly a day goes by where some email blast lands in the ol' inbox talking about the virtues of his bond propisal, but it appears the NC Senate doesn't see it that way.

What the Senate proposal does show is that transportation funding can be achieved if the correct priorities are in place and there is the political will to implement those priorities.

Through a few strokes of the budget pen, they came up with $315 million per year in new money.

Now let's look at that from the perspective of the I77 HOT Lanes project.

How much is $315m/yr over the 50 year life of  the HOT lanes?

Answer: Over $15 billion.

How much is the true funding gap if the current HOT Lanes plan was converted to general purpose lanes or even one new GP lane and an extension of the current HOV lane while still spending the state dollars committed directly to the HOT project?

Answer:  $655m total cost - $95m direct state input - $75m DRAM committment - roughly $80m in "bonus funds" being spent to directly help the HOT lanes project - $50m in toll collection costs not needed for a non-toll project leaves a $355m funding gap.

The Senate's proposed new budget just found nearly that much in the couch cushions.

And the State means to tell one of the areas that is a major economic engine the only way to widen the road is to suck billions of dollars out of the local economy over the next 50 years rather than using a tiny percentage of the billions they just "found" to achieve the same thing?

That's not a money problem.  That's a political will problem.

Update: A reader sent in this comment...

"We need to stop the apples-to-apples comparison because we don't need an apple, we need a grape."

That's a good point.  What has been proposed by NCDOT is a "kitchen sink" type of project.  It's  more than what's needed to solve the problem with goodies like new bridges and new exits thrown in to jack up the cost to attract companies like Cintra and buy political support from some local politicians.

The point of this piece is that even when you accept those unnecessary pre-conditions this is not as much of a money problem.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Does Governor Pat care about North Meck's opinion on transportation?

There have been recent reports of Governor Pat's office soliciting support in various parts of the state for his multi-billion dollar "Connect NC" bond package.

Various local bodies from municipal and county elected boards to local chambers of commerse are being asked by Governor Pat to pass resolutions supporting his proposal.

Incidentally, that's not unlike the resolutions Senator Tarte is asking local boards to pass opposing the HOT lanes contract with Cintra - resolutions Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain sees as unnecesary.  

We here at aShortChronicle thought it was worth seeing if the same effort was taking place here in North Mecklenburg by the Governor's office.

According to the town clerks from Huntersville, Cornelius, and Davidson, no such request for support of the Connect NC bonds has come into the towns.

Makes sense in a warped way.

Since Governor Pat is committed to sticking the area with 50 years of tolls, he is probably pretty sure asking for support from this area on just about anything is a waste of time?

Does he care about this area's opinion?

Nope.  No he does not.

But, the fact that he's going elsewhere around the state asking for resolutions shows that such things carry weight with the General Assembly when its being asked to pass some sort of controversial bill.

That fact may be lost on Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain.  Let's hope tonight it is not lost on a majority of the Huntersville Board as they vote on a resolution asking the NCGA to pull the plug on the I77 HOT lanes project.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Pressure amps up for Huntersville HOT lanes resolution

The Huntersville Board meets Monday, and some sort of  anti-HOT lanes resolution will most likely be on the agenda unless some serious shenanigans occur.

The biggest question is will it be a strong resolution like the one Cornelius passed that explicitly asks NCDOT to negate the contact with Cintra/I77 Mobility Partners OR will it be a watered down resolution like the one passed by Davidson which only asked for "fair" alternatives.

There could also be some drama as the pressure amps up a bit over the whole idea of a resolution being needed in the first place - at least that's the perspective of Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain.

In some recent Facebook back-and-forth on the issue, Swain has been questioning why Senator Jeff Tarte is asking for resolutions from local municipalities prior to filing any legislation to stop the toll project.  Swain points out that Tarte has submitted dozens of other bills without requiring resolutions - including sometimes things the towns actively oppose.  Tarte's response is that going to the General Assembly and asking the legislators to undo a proposal that has gotten to this point realistically requires obvious support from local elected officials.  Otherwise, the bill would not go anywhere.

Tarte is right in this instance.  If he walked into the General Assembly without a stack of resolutions, any bill very likely would not go forward.  That would most likely be true even if he has a few resolutions, but not a complete set. That's just reality.

That's also why the Huntersville resolution is so important and why Swain's opposition to the idea could be so damaging.   In Davidson and Cornelius, there are odd numbers of commissioners.  In Huntersville, there is an even number and thus the Mayor is more likely to vote in the event of a tie.

What Swain does Monday will matter.

If  a strong resolution is presented, Swain's recent comments indicate she might vote against it in a tie situation.  If a weak resolution is presented and that were to end in tie, she might also vote against it because she thinks it is not needed.

Swain's former opponent for Huntersville Mayor, County Commissioner Jim Puckett, had this to say on Facebook in recent days regarding the upcoming Huntersville vote on a resolution...

"We need to make sure the folks in Huntersville know this is NOT just a resolution asking for an alternative to tolls IT IS MUCH BROADER. This is a referendum on the future of the moderate to large business community in our region. Either our boards stand with us (Cornelius and Davidson Commissioners do) or they stand against this community. If our elected officials will not at the LEAST take a stand to send the message we want an alternative, then we cannot trust that they will stand for us the next time needed. I for one will not support anyone who will simply roll over or give up because the odds are against them. Real leaders do not take the temperature, they determine the temperature. As for me I want to be known not as a thermometer, a thin fragile instrument shoved up a posterior to gauge what's going on, but a thermostat that makes the machine give me the environment the people want."

Which is it gonna be - thermometer or thermostat?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Davidson Town Hall gives itself big raise with new budget

Davidson's Town Board passed the FY2016 budget this past Tuesday which was 6.5% bigger than last year.  I don't know about you, but I don't know too many people who get those types of raises these days.

John Deem point out a few "highlights" in the Observer today in an article titled "Davidson budget keeps taxes unchanged".  From the Observer...
  • Funding that would allow for an average 4 percent, merit-based pay raise for town employees.
  • The addition of a firefighter to staff the Odell Fire Department Station 2 on Shiloh Church Road.
  • A pay classification and staffing-level study to ensure that the town is “able to retain employees and make the best use of employee skills and abilities.”
  • Forensic and property management software for the Police Department, document management software for the town administration, a pickup truck for Public Works Department and public information software.
  • Pedestrian walking lights on Main Street near the Flatiron Grill, and improvements to Roosevelt Wilson and other town parks
Those all sound like good things, but there are some other tidbits that are left out of this article which should give taxpayers pause.

The actual amount of money set aside for Mi-Connection fell $200,000 this year.  Davidson continues to have the highest tax rate and by far the highest solid waste fees of the local towns. This is primarily due to the subsidies for the cable company.  This budget seems to make it clear that as those subsidies fall, the taxpayer should not expect any relief from town hall.

Instead, money will continue to be spent on things like electronic information kiosks and something called a "solar and pedal powered vehicle" for Recreation Department staff.
Toys for town hall rather than figuring out how to give money back to taxpayers after years of over taxation seems like there are still some misplaced priorities that need to be fixed.

Read moe hmunitke-nor-mooresville/article23677417.html#storylink=cpy

Auto repair returns to Davidson with new Woodie's outlet

It has been 7 ½ years since you could get your oil changed in Davidson.  7 ½ years since you could get your car inspected.  7 ½  years since you could get a flat fixed or your car repaired without having to leave town limits.

The  days of being able to do all those things ended in Davidson with the closing of Stowe’s Exxon at the corner of Main and South Streets in December of 2007.  For decades, the service station at the site where Flatiron restaurant now sits in the Stowe Building provided these valuable services.  They are services that have been missed.

Even in Davidson, a town known for its focus on walkable design, bike lanes, and greenways, almost every household has at least one car.  For this past many years, residents have had to go elsewhere to take care of those needs.

Well, that long drought ended last week with the opening of the newest Woodie’s Auto in the Circles @ 30 area near the Harris Teeter.

When asked about the opening, Kim Flemming, the town’sEconomic Development Manager, said “we welcome Woodie’s Auto Service to Davidson’s business community and look forward to their providing a valuable service to our citizens.”

While Ms Flemming certainly is correct about this being a valuable service – one that has been sorely needed in town, it is hard to imagine how close this came to not being a reality.

This project only came to fruition because Davidson’s Board voted to grant a variance to a town ordinance requiring all new commercial buildings in town have two working floors.

Even though the new building looks like it is two floors, as an auto repair facility it really only has one.  In an attempt to show they were meeting the spirit of the ordinance, the running joke by those who supported the project at the time was that the cars pulled in on the firsts floor, and were repaired on the second – once they were hoisted on the lifts.  More seriously, the building was designed so that in the event Woodie’s ever left the location a second working floor could be installed.

Still, at the time in the Spring of 2013 that was not enough to sway the Davidson Planning Board or Town Planning Staff.  The citizen-led Planning Board voted 8-1 opposing the variance and the town staff opposed it as well.  Holding to the strict “letter of the law” outweighed allowing a needed business to open.

However, in April of that year the Town Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 in favor of granting the variance and letting the project go forward as proposed.

After a passionate and sometimes heated public hearing with several citizens speaking against the project, Commissioners Laurie Venzon, Brian Jenest, and Connie Wessner voted to approve the variance request.  Commissioners Rodney Graham and Jim Fuller voted against it.

Two years later now that the building is there, what do the Commissioners who opposed the variance request think?

Commissioner Graham said that he had actually run into the Woodie’s team after the vote and told them that even though he had voted against the variance request, he told them he'd certainly be a customer once they opened.

He also passed along some good news about employment opportunities for local residents.  Graham said “I had a conversation with the owner of Woodies a couple of weeks ago about their efforts to recruit Davidson residents to be employees at this new location.  In conversations with others who have been involved in this effort I am encouraged that Woodie’s has made a sincere effort to hire Davidson residents at this location, and am hopeful that Davidson residents will respond positively to these employment opportunities.  Having Davidson businesses hire Davidson residents is beneficial on many levels.”

Commissioner Jim Fuller echoed hose sentiments.  Saying “my answer doesn't differ greatly from Rodney's.  I voted as I did out of conscience, thinking about our commitment to preserving the small town character of Davidson, and, as well, a genuine concern for neighbors and trees--which I find go together nicely in our town.  Yet, respecting the majority's vote, I sincerely hope Woodie’s succeeds, becoming one of our corporate community leaders.”

Both comments are definitely good to hear.

As growth and development continue to pick back up in town, the town will certainly have many more opportunities to work with developers in search of common ground and compromise like they did with Woodie’s.  While one can expect the Planning Board and staff to stick to more doctrinaire positions, it ultimately comes down to the elected officials to make the decisions.

Let's hope those who vote do so on the basis of common sense realism.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"Cutting the cord" with Sling TV

With summer vacation upon us, here's an idea to try something different and save a few bucks.

“Cord cutting.”

The idea that consumers can live without traditional pay TV service has been bubbling under the surface for years now, but 2015 is shaping up to be the year when the pieces fall in place to actually make it cost effective and easy.

Over six months since “cutting the cord” at the Short household, it is safe to say nobody in my family misses it.  We’ve found out  that when it comes to TV, our household is like a growing number of homes across the country.

The TV we watch comes from a relatively limited number of channels, and the way we watch TV has fundamentally changed with the advent of streaming.

Last year, the ratings people at Nielsen put out a study showing that while the average number of channels in pay TV packages ballooned from 129 in 2008 to 189 in 2013, the average number of channels watched per household only went from 17.3 to 17.5.

Over that same time more and more households have moved a larger portion of their TV viewing to online streaming via so called Over The Top (OTT) services like Netflix.  By the end of 2014 40% of households subscribed to at least one streaming service.

I didn't know it at the time we made the decision to cut the cord, but between those two statistics it's clear our household falls right into that trend.  The fact that we watch relatively few channels and most of our TV content is streamed led to the decision, and it would appear, many more households are coming to that conclusion as well.

For the first time ever, the traditional pay TV industry lost customers in Q1 of a calendar year – losing a net of 31k subscribers.  That was down from roughly 370k net adds last year, or a 400k swing.  That's an ominous sign when one considers 2015 is shaping up to be the year when many of the gaps in the streaming landscape will close.

Those gaps will close with the advent of “skinny bundles” via services like Sling TV which launched in February and the rollout of HBO Now as a standalone product.

In the interest of transparency, I've been given a “reviewer account” from Sling TV for the past few months which means I'm getting it for free.  That account also includes HBO.

So, what do you get with Sling TV?

For $20/month, you get 22 traditional channels including cable stalwarts like TBS, TNT, ESPN, ESPN2, AMC, Disney Channel, History Channel, Food Network, Travel Channel, HGTV, and CNN. The Weather Channel is reportedly also on the way.  For $5 a piece,  you can add on different channel packages containing several channels each in categories like Family, News, Sports and Movies.

The big “get” here though is ESPN.  Until Sling TV launched, the only way to get ESPN was through a traditional pay TV subscription.  For an additional $15/month, Sling TV is also one of the first avenues to get HBO via streaming.

So, what are the trade-offs for lower monthly bills?

A lot has been written about the so called limitations of the platform such as its single stream setup (meaning the account can only be accessed by one devise at a time) and the lack of a DVR.  Those have been a non-issue for my household.

If I'm watching sports and my kids want to watch something else, they are on Netflix anyway, so that limitation doesn't matter.  Also, if I just want the TV on for back ground or to watch something mindless there's always something on TBS, TNT, Food Network, or HGTV that falls into that category.  You don't need  DVR for that, but Hulu Plus basically provides the same functionality as a DVR for most broadcast network shows if that's something you must have.

Another common criticism of Sling TV is that it doesn't have local broadcast channels.  No, it doesn't, but a $30 digital antenna works just fine on the living room TV.

Yes, the channel selection is limited, but remember, most of you are only watching 17 stations anyway.  The only cable channel I personally watch that's not included on Sling TV
Is FX.  For the political junkies out there, there's also no MSNBC or Fox News.

If these things are something you can't live without, then maybe cord cutting is not for you.

Me? I’ll take the $850/year we’re saving off of our old cable bill and put that towards our next summer vacation.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

After "washing his hands" of I77, #NCSEN Tillis proposes new interstate

Just last week we brought you word how Senator Thom Tillis washed his hands of responsibility for tolls on I77 by pawning it off as a "state" responsibility.  This week he's proposing a new interstate for Eastern North Carolina.

What do you bet this one won't involve tolls?

From Senator Tillis's website...

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) introduced The Road to Opportunity and Development (ROAD) Act of 2015. The bipartisan legislation amends the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991, designating the Raleigh-Norfolk Corridor as a future part of the interstate system, while creating opportunities for increased commerce and investment in infrastructure and jobs.
Tillis’ Senate bill is co-sponsored by Senators Richard Burr (R-NC), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Mark Warner (D-VA), and Congressman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC-01) introduced a companion bill in the House.
The ROAD Act of 2015 would designate the following as a high priority corridor:
  •         U.S. Route 64 from its intersection in Raleigh, North Carolina, through Rocky Mount, Williamston and Elizabeth City, to U.S. Route 17 at its intersection in Norfolk, Virginia

The designation of these two highways as high priority corridors ensures the two portions of the roads will become part of the Interstate system once they’re fully built and upgraded to interstate standards. Such designation would easing traffic congestion among Norfolk, Raleigh and the North Carolina coast. 
“I am pleased to introduce yet another bipartisan bill that focuses on improving our state’s infrastructure, reducing traffic congestion, and supporting the creation of good-paying North Carolina jobs,” said Senator Tillis. “The ROAD Act will prove essential in enhancing interstate commerce between North Carolina and Virginia, and promoting economic growth for local communities along the Raleigh-Norfolk corridor.” 
“The ROAD Act will open up new opportunities in North Carolina,” said Senator Burr. “Legislation like this is vital to our state's infrastructure, benefiting all of those who use our roads and highways and encourages economic expansion by connecting some of the east coast’s largest ports to North Carolina’s cities and towns. I’m excited to see the possibilities the ROAD Act will open for all North Carolinians.”
“This bill is a bipartisan step toward integrating the Hampton Roads region of Virginia with North Carolina’s Research Triangle,” said Senator Kaine.  “Hampton Roads has so much to offer, including a skilled maritime workforce, top-tier academic institutions, a robust tourism sector, and one of the East Coast’s leading deepwater ports.  The benefits of interstate highway service to Raleigh will benefit people and businesses in both states and strengthen regional commerce throughout the mid-Atlantic.”
“I am proud to join Senator Kaine and our colleagues from North Carolina in introducing this bipartisan bill,” said Senator Warner. “Designating this corridor as part of the interstate system will help facilitate commerce, boost tourism and improve the quality of life in and around Norfolk and the entire Tidewater region.”
The ROAD Act is the second piece of legislation Sen. Tillis and Rep. Butterfield have introduced to improve North Carolina’s infrastructure, after introducing the Military Corridor Transportation Improvement Act of 2015 two weeks ago. Both bills will help to advance the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Strategic Transportation Corridors Vision, which aims to provide North Carolina with a network of high priority corridors that promote economic development and enhance interstate commerce.