Save Davidson Movement Stirs Up Municipal Elections

Olivia Daniels-

Upon returning to campus in August, many students were surprised to see “Save Davidson” plastered throughout Main Street in the form of car magnets, posters, and t-shirts. Is Davidson in danger? If so, why?

In 1985, the Town of Davidson purchased a nineteen-acre property on Beaty Street from Venie Clontz. According to Save Davidson leader Jamie Ramsden, “The property was originally supposed to be a park,” in accordance with Clontz’s wishes.

Current Town Commissioner Rodney Graham explained that technically, there was no guarantee for a park to be built on the land. Instead, the sale stipulated that “nothing can prohibit the town from using it as a park,” but there was “no absolute commitment” to building one.

In 1996, town records show that the Town Board issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) to developers, but the Board decided not to pursue any projects.

According to the Town of Davidson’s “Beaty Street Proposal FAQs” (February 15, 2017), the town purchased more land in 2006, including “the Fiji House parcel at 832 Beaty Street (.6 acre) and the parcel at 825 Shearer Street (.23 acre).”

During the early months of 2016, Michael Flake ’06 attempted to buy about five acres of the Beaty Street Property for use by Lake Forest Church, where he now serves as a pastor. Lake Forest Church currently holds its services in Davidson Elementary School, where it rents space on Sundays. Flake, however, believes that it is important for his “house of worship to put down more permanent roots.”

Flake was interested in the property for two main reasons. First, given that many members of his congregation are Davidson students, it was important that the church’s new location “be close enough for students to walk or bike.”

Second, according to Flake, a 2014 town ordinance stipulated, that “a place of assembly [in Davidson] cannot be within .25 miles of a similar place of assembly.” Because of the central location of Davidson College Presbyterian Church, this meant that the Beaty Street Property was one of the few locations that complied with this ordinance and remained accessible for students.

Flake, in partnership with Blue Heel, a Davidson-based development company, went to the town with a proposal of development for the entire property, including the construction of a church, a park, some housing, and some retail space.

Graham explained that after Flake approached the Board, it was necessary to begin the bidding, or RFP process. Of all the proposals, he recalled that “there were three proposals that made sense,” but one offered too little compensation. Graham, a developer himself, sat on the selection committee, which made a recommendation in February 2017 to the Board between two proposals: Flake’s Blue Heel proposal and the Luminous Proposal.

Reflecting on the issue, Flake explained, “My understanding as a citizen was that the selection committee would bring two [proposals] to the Board and have the Board decide.” Instead, the committee recommended the Luminous Proposal, which was eventually chosen in the spring of 2017. Flake described the situation as either “a case of shared misinformation or the process changed internally.”

Luminous, the development currently in the midst of contract negotiations with the town, describes itself as “a purposeful living community.” According to the proposal, it plans to offer The Davidson Learning Center (“a community center dedicated to community wide learning”), a 6.5 acre park, over eleven acres of open space, a 100-room boutique hotel and restaurant, a 28,000 square-foot retail center, twenty-one townhomes, eleven single family homes, and 132 condominium flats. The development is scheduled to be complete by December 2022.

Jeremy Martin, Davidson resident and E.H. Little Library Client Services Manager, expressed his concern with Luminous, as the site sits within 0.2 miles of his home. He explained, “I am concerned about environmental and sociological impacts on North Davidson, since the site is so close to the only affordable housing option in town.” He worries that developers will attempt to purchase the affordable housing property and leave residents with fewer options.

According to Save Davidson leader Denise Beall, the non-partisan movement began on Facebook in Februrary 2017, when town residents “started hearing about developer plans.” She recalled that the town’s choice of a proposal without citizen input felt as though “democracy had been stripped away.” Among her concerns about the Luminous development are quality of life and traffic.

Fellow Save Davidson leader and current Town Commissioner candidate David Sitton explained that Luminous “represents a Birkdale-style development that is not reflective of the historic character of Davidson.”

Ramsden emphasized that Save Davidson “is not just saying no to growth,” while Sitton explained that the movement is “not anti-development, but let’s decide together about the development.”

Cambria Nielson ’84, another Save Davidson affiliate, added, “I just feel it should be the park that it was intended to be, not a high-density development that will mainly benefit developers.”

The decision to develop the property also brought forth questions of transparency, which both Beall and Sitton see at the forefront of Save Davidson’s mission. Sitton explained that “Mayor [John] Woods said there was no documentation of the intent of a park.” Save Davidson then obtained documents proving otherwise through multiple NC Public Records Requests, according to Beall.

Graham, on the other hand, believes that the municipal government “is more transparent than in the last several years,” a trend that began before Save Davidson existed. He explained that more and more meetings are being held publicly, and private meetings are only held when legally necessary.

According to Ramsden, Save Davidson is organized into three subgroups: community outreach, research and documentation, and electoral. The movement has expanded beyond the Beaty Street development to address issues surrounding the Griffith Street hotel (which is currently planned to be built next to a school) and a Potts Street development application. In this sense, Beall believes that “Save Davidson has amplified the voice of the broader community.”

In an exclusive statement to The Davidsonian, Davidson Mayor John Woods said, “We have a clear vision, mission, core values and planning principles that encourage us to meet such pressures head-on and channel change to fit our community. We welcome and encourage active citizen input with encouragement that we act on behalf of the entire community, that our concerns are not a self-centered ‘not in my backyard’ or an ‘I moved here and I don’t want anyone else to move here’ focus.”

In July 2017, the Town Board voted 3-2 to proceed with Luminous by entering contract negotiations with the developer. That evening, around 250 people held a peaceful protest outside Town Hall. Graham was among those who voted in favor of the movement. He explained that his vote was based on belief that the development “would create jobs, foster business retail, and generate tax base.”

Graham also described Luminous as “an opportunity for the town to get an accessible park” and an ultimate reduction in traffic. While Luminous will create more traffic on Main Street, Graham believes that it will be less so than if developments were built on the wider edges of Davidson and more people drove into the town center.

The next step in the development process is that the Town Board will vote to approve the contract conditionally. Then, another bidder may be able to outbid the current developer within ten days on the exact same plan. After this process is closed, the board will vote to sign the purchase contract. During a 180-day period of due diligence, the developer will take soil samples before beginning the master planning process.

According to Beall, the Town Board hopes to sign the purchase contract prior to the upcoming, non-partisan municipal elections. She explained that as time goes on, “It becomes increasing difficult to stop [the development] because a third-party [the developer] will be legally involved.”

Save Davidson’s goal, Beall said, remains as “not signing the purchase contract.” She believes that the issue is “too divisive and the town is not in a position to move forward.”

Despite requesting a meeting with Davidson College President Carol Quillen, Beall and Sitton have not yet spoken to any college administrators about their cause. Sitton mentioned that given its commitment to the Honor Code, “it would be nice if the college would reaffirm that [sentiment] beyond the confines of campus and more broadly in the town.”

Nielson added that the movement would nonetheless “love to have [Davidson students] help us in any way that they like.”

According to Mark Johnson, Director of College Communications, the college has no comment on Save Davidson or Luminous.

Save Davidson currently exists as a broad “movement of engagement,” not an organization. It is not registered as a 501(c)(4) organization, which refers to a tax-exempt social welfare group that “operates primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community (such as by bringing about civic betterment and social improvements),” according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). These groups are allowed to spend only 49% of their annual budget on political or campaign activities.

Save Davidson is not a registered 501(c)(3), which are non-profit organizations. These cannot donate directly to any political groups or campaigns, but can donate to 501(c)(4)s, according to the IRS.

Beall and Sitton maintain that the movement is also not a Political Action Committee (PAC). Save Davidson is not registered with the IRS, NC Board of Elections, or NC Secretary of State’s office. Sitton explained that they have not sought any such classification because “its mission continues to evolve and change through organic growth.”

Save Davidson sells merchandise to fund its own initiatives and consultants, according to Beall. She explained that the movement’s members are collecting sales tax on goods and plan to pay it as well. For example, Save Davidson hired an outside appraisal company who valued the Beaty Street property at $4.6 million, according to Beall. This sat in stark contrast with the town’s appraisals, which were both below $2 million.

Sitton and Deal explained that in light of the upcoming municipal elections, “Save Davidson will not be endorsing candidates at this time.” Members may, however, create a ticket or scorecard to hand out to voters on Election Day, denoting which candidates are supporters of their cause.

Ramsden added that Save Davidson has conducted interviews with municipal candidates that are available on Facebook. Nielson explained that Save Davidson will also be hosting two public forums for candidates. The mayoral forum will take place on September 14 at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, and the commissioner forum will occur on September 18 at Gethsemane Baptist Church. She confirmed that all candidates plan to participate.

As of September 6, 2017, three candidates have declared their intention to run for mayor, and thirteen for the five commissioner seats. Woods is seeking mayoral re-election. Among the commissioners, Stacey Anderson, Jim Fuller ‘64, and Graham are seeking reelection.

Jane Campbell ‘87 is a town commissioner candidate who believes that the Save Davidson cause “will be a significant issue in the November elections, but no candidate should be assessed on a single issue.”

Sitton explained that he had not been planning to run before the Save Davidson movement gained traction. He believes that “most candidates are running based on what happened [at the Beaty Street development].”

Graham reflected on the number of candidates as a positive thing for the town, calling it “an indication of the level of interest out there.”

Flake also maintains that “if the Beaty Street development does not move forward, Lake Forest is still interested in the property.”