You might say it’s back to square one when it comes to the Market House, the historic and controversial centerpiece of downtown.
Dion Lyons, a conciliation specialist with the U.S. Department of Justice, joined with the Fayetteville Human Relations Commission on Monday night to unveil a report on repurposing the structure that has polarized a community since it was set on fire on May 30, 2020, and even prior because it once was a site for selling slaves.
“A sticky subject,” Councilman D.J. Haire was saying of the structure Monday night at the City Council meeting in the newly-remodeled City Hall, and Haire said, for as long as he’s been a councilman for 10 terms.
Tear it down, opponents say. Or move it to another location.
Repurpose it, proponents argue back.
“Both groups want to see the Market House as a symbol of education,” Semone Pemberton, chairwoman of the Human Relations Commission, told the council about its meetings with about 80 people from the community to brainstorm ideas for repurposing the Market House. “They want to see various genres of African American history, quarterly displays of local artists, history tours from 1832 to 2022, work with anthropologists for accuracy, short films and educational speakers.”
Other recommendations, she said, included changing the name of the Market House, removing a Black Lives Matter mural and upgrading the structure to Americans With Disabilities Act compliance.
Call those reasonable suggestions from what Lyons told the council were meetings with community residents from business, education, elected officials and youth.
Just one problem.
“It’s somewhat disheartening to hear the lack of community input,” Councilman Antonio Jones said. “Your sample size needs to be fairly large. To me, it should be more representative of the total community. To me, that’s important. The goal for me and others sitting out there is to make sure at the end of the day that we have done our very best and evaluated what the community desires. I hope there is a way we can revisit that community aspect. We need the community involved a little more.”
And a small sampling of 80 residents, Jones and other council members said, doesn’t cut it.
Talk about the deer looking into the headlights, and more headlights were coming.
“I have two questions,” Councilwoman Courtney Banks-McLaughlin said to Lyons. “My first question is regarding the meetings. Were those meetings open to the public? Were they virtual or in person? Was it a meeting where anybody could come in off the street?”
Lyons said there were restrictions because of COVID-19 protocols – a DOJ policy in the height of the health pandemic.
“Originally, one of the concerns was allowing citizens in Fayetteville to have input and be involved in decision-making,” Banks-McLaughlin said.
Lyons acknowledged that the work was challenging, describing the Market House controversy as “a lightning rod in the community.” He said the mission of the DOJ and the Human Relations Commission was to “reduce tension where we can” so leaders in the community can implement a plan for community accord. Lyons said some of the meetings were lengthy and long.
Thank you, sir, but …
“I thank you for the time you put in,” Councilman Larry Wright told Lyons, but, “we have high emotions on both sides. We certainly want to give citizens, more citizens, input. When you are dealing with 208,000 people, we have to be careful. We want to see what the community really wants and what is best for our community. We want input from young and old, rich and poor, youth and black and white.”
Councilwoman Yvonne Kinston said every resident should have a voice in what to do with the Market House.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathy Keefe Jensen was right there with Jones, Banks-McLaughlin, Wright and Kinston.
“We are seeing people shaking their heads one way, and another way,” Jensen said as she looked out toward the audience. “I look forward to the council keeping this open to the citizens.”
Response from the majority of the council was not lost on the mayor.
“From what I’m hearing from council is, we want citizen input,” Mitch Colvin said. “We need more diversity. We want to make sure of those for it, against it and those with other opinions …’’ but “at the end of the day we are not going to be able to talk to 208,000 people.”
The mayor is right there.
But sampling 80 people just won’t do.
Only Councilman Johnny Dawkins balked at Banks-McLaughlin’s motion for more input from residents.
“These are smart folks,” Dawkins said about Lyons, Pemberton and Yamile Nazar, director for diversity, equity and inclusion with the Human Relations Department. “They calm communities. Mr. Mayor, I’m saying let them finish their process. If we are still not happy, let’s open it up and go back.”
Nothing doing, Banks-McLaughin stood firm.
“I am making a motion to allow residents to come in to have more input,” the councilwoman said. “Not hand-picked. And for this to come back no later than July.”
Lyons said he was willing to facilitate another round of discussions to include more input from the community.
The council got it right Monday in saying let’s hear from as many residents as possible. But the DOJ and the Fayetteville Human Relations Commission got it right, too, in telling us that the old Market House should be an education center to tell the story of the Market House and its history. And a community will be the better for it.
Council got something else right Monday night in voting to remove that unsightly fence surrounding the Market House now that repairs are complete since it was damaged by protesters on May 30, 2020.
“We are a community trying to heal,” Jones said. “That fence is still divisive.”
The freshman councilman said it well, and the audience gave a resounding applause.
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-624-1961.