Editorial – Need more dialogue on Grange project

Published 4:57 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2023

State-mandated public hearings on controversial matters work pretty well as a way of letting folks vent. There’s something to be said for that.

Public hearings are badly lacking, however, as a tool for shaping sound public policy.

We were reminded anew of public hearings’ shortcomings last week as the Smithfield Planning Commission heard from citizens on the proposed Grange at 10Main, a mixed-use development proposed for the western edge of the town’s Historic District. Concerns were aired, and valid questions posed, but the long session was devoid of substantive dialogue between the citizenry and the public servants who represent them.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

That’s pretty typical of such hearings, which are prescribed by law as a way to make decision-making more transparent but in reality are little more than window dressing for public input on decisions that, from a cynic’s perspective, are preordained.

Mostly, members of the governing body holding the hearing sit stone-faced while citizens speak, perhaps getting a “thank you” from the chair before the next speaker’s name is called. The affable Charles Bryan, to his credit, brings a friendly face and voice to Smithfield Planning Commission hearings, but concerned citizens get no substantive response, not even answers to direct questions.  

The Smithfield Times has offered to fill the void on the controversial Grange project by hosting a public forum at which citizens can get their questions answered on arguably the most important decision the town will make about its historic district in the lifetimes of current residents. We devised a format that would ensure substantive dialogue and prohibit rants from people who just want to blow steam.

We invited developer Joe Luter IV, Mayor Steve Bowman, Bryan, Tourism Director Judy Winslow and community organizations that have an interest in downtown’s future. One of those organizations, Historic Smithfield, has accepted the invitation. Luter and Bowman acknowledged the invitation but haven’t formally accepted or rejected it. The others haven’t responded at all.

As we’ve written in this space many times, we find lots to like about the Grange as an economic engine for a community in which this newspaper and its owner are heavily invested. We acknowledge, however, some valid concerns of citizens and believe much information is missing, especially about proposed taxpayer involvement. Our forum invitation stands.