Siler City leaders haggle over minority assistance agenda

Posted 3/31/21

In a recent meeting to discuss their economic development implementation strategy, Siler City’s Economic Development Strategic 5-Year Plan Steering Committee members haggled over how best to address inequities in representation among the town’s diverse minority populations.

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Siler City leaders haggle over minority assistance agenda

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SILER CITY — In a recent meeting to discuss their economic development implementation strategy, Siler City’s Economic Development Strategic 5-Year Plan Steering Committee members haggled over how best to address inequities in representation among the town’s diverse minority populations.

The 11-person group — which includes such local leaders as Town Manager Roy Lynch, Town Planner Jack Meadows, Pastor Cecil Wilson and Siler City Realtor Cindy Dameron — has worked for months in partnership with Bruce Naegelen and Ann Bass, economic development planners from the NCDOC’s Main Street & Rural Planning Center. Its goal is to craft a series of strategies by which the town can improve economic footing and enhance the quality of life for its residents.

Siler City’s economic positioning statement, crafted by the five-year plan steering committee, emphasizes the town’s desire for an “inclusive community,” a “multi-cultural downtown of shops, makers and artisans” and “safe neighborhoods” which attract residents from around the greater Triangle and Triad regions.

Historically, the town has not matched the committee’s vision. But with a comprehensive implementation plan, its members hope to change that.

Words into action

The group’s first strategy is to promote an “inclusive, healthy community.”

“Siler City is a ‘minority majority’ community,” Naegelen said. In other words, most of the town’s population is comprised of minority peoples.

Almost half the town’s residents — 47.1% — are Latino.

“While relationships are improving,” Naegelen said, “there is still much to be done to gain understanding, trust and participation.”

Another 18.7% of Siler City’s population is Black, meaning two-thirds of the town’s population is made up of minorities.

Besides racial and ethnic minorities, senior citizens, defined as ages 55-84 in the MS&RP report, make up a growing slice of the town’s population.

“Which surprised me,” Meadows said, “that the population’s aging like that.”

Last year’s census data may reveal a different picture when it’s released in coming months, Naegelen pointed out, but other metrics suggest that Siler City is trending older, especially as the job market fails to support young workers.

“It may be that youth exodus is making the numbers go up,” Meadows said.

To retain younger residents and improve quality of life for minority groups which have often felt excluded, the committee’s first goal is to “make all populations feel welcome and involved.”

Step one in achieving its objective: match representation on town-appointed boards and committees to U.S. Census 2020 population percentages, the implementation plan says.

The town’s board of commissioners is responsible for such appointments, Lynch said, but department heads “make recommendations ... and do have input.”

“So, we’ll put a five-year timeline on that to kind of get to that point,” Naegelen said.

Other suggested action items to promote a more inclusive community included:

• Creating “a pipeline of engaged knowledgeable local leaders from all populations of residents” (featuring members from such organizations as the Hispanic Liaison, the Siler City Merchants Association, the Chatham County Chamber of Commerce and others)

• Developing comprehensive profiles of town-appointed boards and committees outlining their purposes, meeting times and other information to enhance accessibility

• Creating and activating a Latino Community Advisory Committee to help the board of commissioners better serve Hispanic residents

Naegelen suggested the steering committee, in cooperation with other town leaders and the board of commissioners, enact the objectives within one year or less.

Internal resistance

Although Siler City’s largest minority population is Hispanic, some on the committee pushed back against formation of a Latino-centric advisory committee and suggested expanding the focus to include more residents.

“Are we going to have to change that to just Minority Community Advisory Committee?” Dameron said. “The times they are a changing.”

Naegelen advised against it, suggesting that a committee to serve all minority interests may not successfully address any of their needs completely.

“It’s to have their voice in place, largely,” he said of the Latino community. “This kind of formalizes that voice.”

But Wilson seconded Dameron’s apprehension, citing what he said was widespread opinion among Black Siler City residents.

“The African American community feels like in Siler City there should be more attention given to that community,” he said. “And so if you have a Latino Community Advisory Committee, then the African American community may feel like, “OK, what about us?’”

Although Latinos outnumber Black residents, Wilson said the “perception to the African American community is they are the majority minority, because they were here first. Therefore, (African Americans) feel like if you’re offering anything extra or any special attention it should start with them first.”

To avoid controversy, Dameron modified her suggestion and asked to strike “Latino” from the committee’s name, instituting instead an all-inclusive Community Advisory Committee.

Lynch, Meadows and others agreed it might be prudent to avoid the notion of exclusivity.

“They do not exercise their access to have a voice,” Wilson said of Siler City’s Latinos. “Yes, technically they don’t have a voice, but it’s not because no one has invited them to have a voice or not because no one has given them access to have a voice. They just choose not to.”

Still, Naegelen and Bass maintained that Siler City’s Hispanic population faces unique challenges and circumstances worthy of individualized attention.

“They do have other issues,” Bass said. “We talked a little bit about the language, but there are also the legality issues. The Dreamers (immigrants protected under the DREAM Act) got to the point where they were scared to death to go anywhere or show up for anything, and the same thing for their families. So there is that additional layer of fear that goes along with it.”

Naegelen added that a Latino Community Advisory Committee was already suggested in the town’s previously approved Building Integrated Communities Project, “a two-year collaboration between the Town of Siler City, The Hispanic Liaison/El Vínculo Hispano and the statewide Building Integrated Communities program at UNC-Chapel Hill,” according to Siler City’s website.

By way of compromise, Naegelen revised the committee’s plan to call for implementation of the BIC Action Plant for Immigrant Integration in lieu of explicitly naming the Latino Community Advisory Committee.

The ultimate decision to proceed with a Latino Community Advisory Committee will fall to the Siler City board of commissioners. The Economic Development Strategic 5-Year Plan Steering Committee is still finalizing its implementation plan, but plans to present its recommendations to the commissioners in coming weeks.

“I’m glad all this came up here,” Meadows said, “because if it came up here, you know it would come up with the board, so this is good.”

Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at dldolder@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @dldolder.

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