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Incoming chief meets with residents

GREENSBORO — Most of those who spoke at Wednesday’s community forum with incoming Police Chief Brian James had a common request: Don’t let your officers treat us like criminals.

An estimated 200 people came to Peeler Recreation Center to voice their concerns about the Greensboro Police Department and/or show support for James.

Residents who spoke took issue with how police officers handle situations — criminal or not — when they involved transgender and black people, as well as those who are homeless, have mental health issues or are in domestic or sexual abuse situations.

James, 49, will succeed Wayne Scott, who retires at the end of the month. The Page High and N.C. A&T graduate, who grew up near Phillips Avenue, will receive an annual salary of $150,000. He assumes his new role on Feb. 1.

He was selected through a four-month process that began with nearly 40 candidates.

Wednesday night’s audience, the majority of whom were black, sought a commitment from James to implement change that will filter throughout the ranks of the department.

“For a long time, there’s been a culture of toxicity inside the police department with racial discrimination against officers, as you are aware, and discrimination against the public,” Jess St. Louis said.

St. Louis, who helped organized the forum, asked how James planned to fill three open deputy chief positions with people that are “committed to racial justice, equity, transparency and accountability to the public that they serve.”

James said he would seek candidates that “have an interest in actually solving problems and building relationships in the community.”

He also asked audience members that if they’re treated unfairly, to let him know.

“I want to make sure that with each interaction, we treat people with dignity and respect,” he said.

James promised a series of similar meetings at community centers throughout Greensboro in February and possibly March.

“My charge is to go forward. I can’t undo history,” James told the crowd, which responded with applause.

Olympic medalist Paul Wylie, U.S. Figure Skating ambassador, 'fortunate to have a second life'

GREENSBORO — Paul Wylie is back for another tour of duty as Greensboro’s honorary chairman and ambassador as the city hosts the U.S. Figure Skating Championships for the third time in 10 years.

Greensboro is lucky to have him.

Figure skating is lucky to have him. And his family is lucky to have him.

“I feel very fortunate,” Wylie says, “to have a second life.”

That’s not an exaggeration.

Because Wylie, the 1992 Olympic men’s silver medalist, nearly died three months after his second stint as Greensboro’s honorary chairman, back in 2015.

Wylie is 55 years old, a retired elite athlete who has kept himself in good physical shape and had no history of health problems.

And yet, without warning, his heart stopped beating during an F3 workout with friends on April 21, 2015.

“It was just a regular workout,” Wylie says. “I was running sprints. I collapsed in the middle of the workout. I was lucky. Two guys were on me right away doing CPR. I was out for, I don’t know, six minutes? I was gone.”

Paramedics arrived and injected Wylie with epinephrine. His heart started again, and he was rushed to a hospital.

“They put me into the ‘Code Cool’ for therapeutic hypothermia,” Wylie says. “Two days later I woke up asking my wife (Kate), ‘Have we paid our health insurance premium?’ The doctors had told her, ‘You’ll see if his brain is there right away.’ So that question was actually a relief for her.”

Wylie recalls the hospital experience, even times he wasn’t completely conscious.

“You can’t really communicate,” he says. “You’re watching things happen, but you’re still in some state of drugged coma. You’re aware, and you’re watching people work around you. All that time, I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, this is going to be expensive.’ ”

But the cost beat the alternative. Wylie is still here for Kate, his wife of 20 years, and their three children — Hannah, 15; Emma, 13; and Caleb, 11.

And Wylie appreciates irony. In addition to coaching skaters at an ice rink in Indian Trail near Charlotte, Wylie also was a part-time speaker for Johnson & Johnson, an advocate for good health and well-being long before the day his heart stopped.

“I was sitting in the hospital, thinking about some of the things we teach in those programs,” Wylie says. “It’s about energy management and positive thinking, and knowing what your purpose in life is. That helped me. … Now I also do a lot of speaking on resilience, on positive attitude, on making sure you’re still trying to be active.”

Two years ago, Wylie had aortic valve replacement surgery, and doctors also inserted a heart defibrillator and pacemaker.

“It’s just part of my story,” Wylie says. “Obviously, I was overexerting myself that day. There was some sort of electrical glitch in my body. I’m not alone; 400,000 people suffer sudden cardiac arrest every year. Most of them, there is no explanation.

“It was like that with me. There were no blockages. Nothing like that. It just happened. So I tell everyone, ‘Make sure you know CPR, because you really could save someone’s life. And make sure your house is in order, because you never know.’ ”

Since his own near-death experience, Wylie has thought a lot about something he talks about at those speaking engagement: his purpose in life.

“I believe I’ve been given certain gifts,” he says, “and my purpose is to share and utilize those gifts to nurture and support my wife, build strong people in my children and to be a pillar in the community. … I need to use those gifts in a way that is helpful.”

Paul Wylie will skate again Friday at the coliseum, a cameo in his third opening ceremonies here at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Greensboro is lucky to have him.

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Zoning Commission considers request on Lawndale's "Devil's Triangle"

GREENSBORO — The Zoning Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to deny rezoning for a controversial property at the busy intersection of Lawndale Avenue and Lake Jeanette Road — a parcel residents have dubbed “The Devil’s Triangle” because of its shape.

Kotis Properties has asked to rezone the land from residential to light commercial use, which hasn’t sat well with nearby homeowners. They believe that if the 2.3 acres were allowed to be commercially developed, it would spur more growth into surrounding neighborhoods.

It’s yet another instance of a city neighborhood fighting a commercial developer to protect their suburban way of life.

That played out Wednesday evening. More than 20 people opposed to the plan attended the Zoning Commission’s meeting at the Melvin Municipal Office Building.

Aaron Terranova, president of the Lawndale-Lake Jeanette Neigborhood Association, told the commission that residents met with representatives of Kotis Properties. Afterwards, they weren’t happy that developers could not say exactly what they want to build on the land.

Currently the property is heavily wooded with one house barely visible through the overgrowth. An affiliate of Kotis Properties owns one of the lots and would have to buy the remaining three before developing the land.

Still, there is the issue of what kind of development it would be.

“They don’t know what’s going to be there,” Terranova said. “That is a huge issue for us.”

Attorney Marsh Prause, who represented Kotis Properties, told the commission that the company wants to build a “walkable” neighborhood development.

“This property,” he said, “has been passed over for residential development.”

Terranova argued that residents have all the commercial services they need within a two-mile radius of the property. That includes The Fresh Market, a specialty grocery store, in a nearby shopping center that borders Lawndale Avenue.

The company said in its rezoning request that the pressure for commercial growth is already strong in the area. Specifically, a new interchange for the Interstate 840 loop to the north is enough to make the 2.3-acre property a reasonable commercial district.

Only six of the commission’s nine members attended the meeting, but all voted against the proposal.

Commissioner Hugh Holston said that after looking at the area, he could come to no other conclusion than the property should remain residential.

Vernal G. Alford III, another commissioner, agreed.

“When I first drove up to this property, I said, ‘Wow, I can’t imagine anything else being there because it’s surrounded by residential.’”

After the vote, Prause said that Kotis Properties is likely to appeal the decision to the City Council, which would hear the case during its Feb. 18 meeting.

Growth imbalance presents Gaston County with unique challenges

GASTON — The magnet effect of urban growth is pulling the edges of some North Carolina counties into prosperity, while leaving the far sides to play a frustrating game of catch-up.

That pattern is on full display in Gaston County, just west of Mecklenburg County and separated from Charlotte only by the Catawba River.

Cities on Gaston’s eastern end such as Belmont and Mount Holly have seen a residential explosion over the last 10 to 20 years, and the development has even extended into the southeastern corner of the county’s largest municipality, Gastonia. But farther west, in towns like Cherryville and Bessemer City, the growth is nominal at best, and pales in comparison to what is on display 20 to 30 miles away.

It presents a unique challenge to such counties to better balance the growth, said Bob Coats, the governor’s Census Bureau liaison in North Carolina. They have to figure out how to spread resources equitably, to meet the needs of all areas of the county.

“Twenty to 30 years ago, an area like Gaston County or Johnston County (just southeast of Raleigh and Wake County), would’ve been much more agricultural,” he said. “But farms have now been converted into urban areas. That’s kind of what we’re seeing going forward, is that the amount of development already going on in Mecklenburg and Wake counties are demonstrating a pull and inciting growth within these more traditionally agricultural areas on the fringes.”

Two separate paths

With 222,846 residents as of 2018, Gaston County as a whole has seen population growth of 8.1% since 2010, and 27.2% since 2000, according to census data.

Belmont has arguably become the county’s most popular place to live, with a vibrant downtown and a close proximity to key destinations. The distance to uptown Charlotte is a mere 12 miles, while Charlotte-Douglas International Airport is less than 7 miles away.

With roughly 12,500 residents in 2018, Belmont’s population has grown by 22.2% since 2010, and by 48% since 2000, according to census data.

Just a few miles north, Mount Holly also hugs the western banks of the Catawba River and was home to 16,135 people in 2018. That represents a population increase of 18.2% since 2010, and an astonishing 67.7% since 2000, the data show.

But as you go farther west on the map, residential growth drops considerably.

With 5,527 residents in 2018, Bessemer City has seen a population upturn of just 3.7% since 2010. Cherryville’s population of 6,026 people in 2018 represents an increase of less than 5% over the last decade. And in Kings Mountain, which straddles Gaston and Cleveland counties, the population has increased by only 2.7% since 2010.

Jean Mountz, the president of the Gaston County Association of Realtors, lives near Crowders Mountain on the southwestern end of Gaston County. But in the decade that she has been selling homes in a five-county region here, she’s seen the evidence of some areas outpacing others.

The average selling price of a home in Gaston County rose to $217,875 in the third quarter of this year, according to Canopy MLS and the Charlotte Regional Realtor Association. But Mountz said there’s no question that the sales prices accounting for that average are heavily skewed from east to west.

“You can get more house and more land for your money in Gaston County compared to Charlotte,” she said. “But that is starting to change farther east. The Belmont area has caught on and is starting to be equal to prices you find in Charlotte.”

Infrastructure needed

Many people moving into a new area care greatly about schools, and Mountz believes Gaston County offers quality public education from end to end. She contends that what has held areas in the western part of the county back is a lack of infrastructure, such as sewer lines and adequate road networks.

“The infrastructure does not make Cherryville an optimal place because you have to go through a lot of back roads before you get there,” she said.

Road improvements are a long-term work in progress across the county. And while there have been some sewer system expansions, it’s also an expensive and slow process that typically requires developers willing to shoulder some of the costs.

The city of Gastonia alone is investing more than $30 million to expand sewer service to an area of more than 5.5 square miles, in what is known as its Southeast Sewer Project. But it is battling rising costs as a result of the development boom coming from Charlotte, said Gastonia Development Services Director Rusty Bost.

“We’re getting to the point now where the market is going faster than we can keep up with,” he said.

Planning for growth

Longtime Cherryville Fire Chief Jeff Cash, 60, also became the city manager of his hometown in 2018. He said there are definitely some in the community who don’t want the growth that has been seen in eastern Gaston County.

“We’re so far off the beaten path, and without four-lane highway access, it’s tough, because a lot of companies would like to come here, but they need that four-lane access to I-85,” he said.

Cherryville is focused now on things such as improving its parks and recreation offerings, lobbying the state for more road improvements into the city, and updating other aspects of its infrastructure, Cash said.

“We know the growth is coming, so it’s a matter of being prepared for it,” he said.

Coats, the governor’s census liaison, said planning and analysis is a challenge for every city and county, and there’s always reason for hope.

“Even for communities that have a little bit of population stagnation right now, just because that’s been the story over the recent short term doesn’t mean that has to be your future,” he said. “A lot of cities and counties are looking at areas around them that have seen growth, and they’re trying to figure out how to leverage resources to take advantage of that.”

Coming Friday: As Republicans and Democrats continue to fight over the redrawing of political maps, many rural counties struggle for their voices to be heard.