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Claremont lease draws concern of neighbors

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

The leasing of Claremont Elementary School to the newly formed City of Refuge (COR) has some neighboring residents raising concerns.

H.M. Kidd and Debbie Clark recently addressed Pulaski Town Council with issues they have over Pulaski County Economic Development Authority’s leasing of the former elementary school to COR, which is a project of several local citizens, including its CEO Joe Blankenship.

According to Pulaski Town Manager Shawn Utt, the center proposes to offer job and skills training for adults; serve as the meeting place for Rock Youth Center, which has been meeting weekly at Central Gym in Pulaski for a number of years, as well as serving as a worship center.

He said all proposed uses conform to the current zoning, so the town’s hands are tied unless COR’s plans are expanded down the road.

“Personally, I don’t think it should be in a residential neighborhood. There are so many buildings (available) in business districts, like the old Magic Mart building,” said Kidd, a former member of Pulaski Town Council who lives at 626 Ridge Ave. He questioned what is going to happen to property values and crime in their neighborhood when COR opens its doors.

“We’ve got a pretty good neighborhood where we live. I’m just against it all together,” he said. Later in the meeting he added, “In no way shape or form am I against the theory behind this. We need this, but just not in a residential neighborhood. There’s people out there that need help and I’m for helping anybody, but this is just pushing it too far.”

Debbie Clark, of 1024 McGill St., said she, too, is concerned about what will happen to property values. She says she has been told they will go down.

“I’m not opposing the vision Mr. Blankenship has for City of Refuge. My family and church have supported him on many of his efforts and will continue to do so. The Claremont community just doesn’t feel Claremont is the location to house this,” she said.

Clark said one of the community’s “biggest frustrations” has been the process through which it is becoming a part of the neighborhood. A process she called, “back door politics at it’s best.”

“It was by no means transparent. It looked like in some ways, and I still believe, we were kept in the dark so that the lease could be signed, City of Refuge would move in and the community would have no input,” she said. “We have been totally left out of the decisions for not only COR, but also Camelot.”

Camelot, which formerly occupied Claremont, was described as therapeutic residential and day school for students unable to function in the traditional classroom.

Clark described resident’s observations while Camelot was in operation.

“We’ve witnessed aggressive children at that school fighting. We’ve seen naked children run through my yard; but we got through it and made the best of a very sad situation when Camelot was there.”

Clark contends her quest for information on COR found “no one in the town, county or Pulaski County EDA were on the same page.”

She says the definition of “school” is being “loosely interpreted” if COR’s job training and Rock Youth Center’s after school program are being allowed at Claremont.

Obtaining a copy of the lease agreement was the only way she was reassured there would “at this time” be no overnight stays and that rezoning would be required to allow overnight accommodations, Clark said. Now, though, she says the community has no confidence in elected leaders to include them in a rezoning if one is requested.

“Members of the COR team and volunteers have actually come to our face and told us it’s a done deal, we’re wasting our time and my time here tonight is of no value because they’re moving in; which is fine, we’ll deal with that,” she told town council.

Clark pointed out Blankenship said at a meeting last weekend he wants to build a “huge” pavilion and “enlarged, enhanced” playground at Claremont to be used by the community.

“While this looks good on paper, we are extremely concerned about the extra traffic, people, noise and activities this would bring to the area around our homes,” she said, noting the community is primarily made up of retired and older couples according to her research.

She says security will only be onsite when COR has activities, so a lot can happen when the COR staff is not onsite.

“On a more personal note, I’d like to say with my husband’s failing health I feel I am now the protector of my family and I do not feel safe with COR being housed at Claremont.

“I’m at the age and point in my life — and this is totally selfish — where I just want to sit on my deck in the afternoons and evenings and watch the squirrels and deer in the school yard, and I don’t want to have to worry if there is going to be a confrontation or altercation at the school that would spill into my yard and cause me or my husband to have to defend ourselves,” Clark said.

“In a perfect world it wouldn’t happen, but as you know from the tragic events that happened last weekend (the mass shootings in Houston, Texas and Dayton, Ohio), we do not live in a perfect world.”

She says she hopes she doesn’t have to come before town council again and tell them “I told you so.”

Utt said the town has been assured by COR the only services it will provide are job and skills training, worship and services offered at Rock Youth Center.

“We’ve assured them if they look to expand beyond that realm there will have to be public hearings, it’s not a guarantee by any means, and the public will have to be part of the process,” Utt added.

As for the problems Clark said the community experienced with Camelot, Utt said he would think COR would be “a step up” since it will be focusing on adult training and there have never been any problems at Rock Youth Center.

“They are going to invest in the school and clean it up,” he said. “I think we just make the best out of a situation we don’t have any control over anyway.”

Councilman Greg East stressed the town will not have any involvement with COR unless the scope of COR’s project changes.

“I think the issue that is upsetting the citizens is the process that it took to get COR there. They were not involved and it was in their back door,” Radcliff said. He reiterated the town’s hands are tied regarding the matter, but added, “it wasn’t a good process.”

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