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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Hughes

Town of Spencer utilizes ARPA funds to move towards future while honoring past

Updated: Jun 10

Written by Stephanie Hughes (NCLM), in collaboration with Jessie Holmes (NCPRO)

The Town of Spencer, which sits northeast of Charlotte in Rowan County, had its start as a railroad town and still honors that identity today. Centrally located between Atlanta, Ga., and Washington, D.C., the town was established with the building of a maintenance facility by the Southern Railway. The project began in 1895, leading to the town's incorporation in 1905.

“You have this booming industrial presence in the Spencer Railways maintenance facility that employed thousands of people, a lot of them lived in town and walked to the shops. And you have a very urban feel in our little town of 3,000 that you do not really see elsewhere because of that,” said Peter Franzese, Spencer’s town manager of the last three-and-a-half years.

Spencer is home to the N.C. Transportation Museum

After several decades of the town thriving, steam power was replaced with other industry and the railway determined to build new facilities elsewhere. Over the following decades, jobs and industry dwindled, leaving Spencer in a period of stagnation. However, after Southern Railway moved out of the town in the 1970s, the land was donated to the state and the Historic Spencer Shops began to take shape. This site would ultimately be renamed as the North Carolina Transportation Museum that today attracts 150,000 visitors a year with events such as the “Thomas the Tank Engine Experience” and the “Polar Express.”

In more recent years, Spencer’s local government officials have gone through a transition, and the new leaders have placed a priority on developing a new vision for the town and moving forward into the future, rather than solely relying on its connection to the past. One of those leaders is Spencer Mayor Jonathan Williams, who took office in 2019. Along with Franzese, Mayor Williams shares an excitement for the future of the town.

“I describe Spencer as a charming southern town that maybe for many years was kind of stagnant, but just in the last five years or so, it has gotten a lot of life and vitality to it. It is a place where folks can come and settle down, set down roots, start their families,” Williams said.

“Our hope is that people now see that Spencer is a great place to live because we have a unique quality of life due to our size and some of the recreation amenities that we are starting to develop,” Franzese explained. “We want visitors to not come to the Transportation Museum and then look across the road to what was the core of town looking like a sleepy, vacant storefront-filled place. We want them to see that the town is lively, and it offers a lot of fun things to do.”

This new vision was just getting underway when the town learned they would receive approximately $1 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The town determined to use the funds for replacing lost revenue from the pandemic, which allowed them additional flexibility in investing in the projects they desired. The town chose multiple areas to invest in that will impact residents and visitors in many ways. Additionally, the town has taken the initiative to find creative ways to make these funds extend beyond the initial amount received.

One such project was a stormwater update in which the town planned to invest over $100,000 simply on design work. Instead, they spent approximately $12,000 in ARPA-enabled funds to bring in a design consultant that prepared them to apply for and ultimately be awarded with a planning grant through the Department of Environmental Quality totaling over $400,000. Then the town later received another $1.9 million in grant funding for the construction project.

As a part of the new vision for the town, leaders have focused on building up the town’s recreation amenities and pursuing opportunities to promote economic development through recreation. The town hopes these projects will not only create an important space for current residents but will encourage non-residents to visit and invite them to stay in Spencer.

“We have these recreation projects that are transforming our town and creating a better quality of life for the folks that are here, but also for visitors who may be coming to town anyway and give them something else to do,” Franzese shared. “We now have a strategic plan all around how we create economic development through recreation that we are going to be working off of and that has opened up additional grant opportunities.”

Newly-created Yadkin River Park Trailhead plaza

The Yadkin River Park Trailhead is one of these recreation projects; it connects to the Wil-Cox Bridge pedestrian crossing, creating a Rowan County access to Davidson County's expansive park. This project included the creation of a landscaped plaza, the start of a greenway connection between the center of town and the river, and vehicle parking where parkgoers can enjoy both sides of the river. The town had already secured outside grant funding for this project, but still needed an additional $71,000 to get it over the finish line. They utilized some of the ARPA-enabled funds to fill this gap and move this project to completion. The trailhead opened in September 2023 and won the Centralina Regional Council’s Improving Quality of Life – Small Community award for “utilizing cooperative volunteerism to expand community, recreational and transportation opportunities.”

The Spencer Shoppes - Site of the future city park.

Another recreation project that is focused on bringing the town’s past and future together is the reinstalling of a former park site at the center of town. The park was originally created by residents in the 1920s but was paved over during the building of a shopping center and is now part of the parking lot. The town plans to invest approximately $2 million—most of which has come from grant funding—into the rebuilding of this park, but as with many projects today, the initial estimates for the project proved insufficient once the project was ready to go out to bid. ARPA-enabled funds have been important in helping to bridge these sorts of gaps, in addition to applying for additional grant money to supply the rest of the needed funds.

“We have been so fortunate through the COVID relief funds that we have gotten, as well as a significant philanthropic donation. … We have been able to package together the funding to make this park a reality that otherwise probably would not have been able to happen, especially in today's construction market when costs have skyrocketed,” Williams said. “So, with minimal investment from our taxpayers, we have been able to take that investment and been able to multiply the funds that are available, particularly because of COVID relief funds.”

Newly-updated Spencer Library

Beyond recreation, there were a couple of buildings in town that needed repairs, including a fire station where ARPA-enabled dollars allowed the town to do some concept design work in preparation for an upgrade, as well as the town’s historic library. Town officials first set aside the funds to replace the library’s windows but adjusted this plan to have them painted and reglazed, preserving the historic windows while saving the town money.

“It has made a great difference in the appearance of the library,” Beverly McCraw, Spencer’s library director, said. “It was cracking and peeling, and it does look much better, and we are getting more customers.”

Another exciting prospect for the town is the creation of the Rowan IDEA center—an entrepreneurship and innovation center that will serve as a business incubator and coworking space. The town has a former church facility that could be revamped into this new center, with the necessary space to consider additional features such as a culinary incubator and on-site childcare. ARPA-enabled dollars offered the town the opportunity to explore this project and to help determine the best path for the town.

Town of Spencer's new garbage truck

Finally, the town pursued another opportunity to extend the ARPA-enabled funds through the purchase of several new vehicles. In addition to three police vehicles and a fire vehicle, the town put down payments on a new fire engine and a garbage truck. The garbage truck will provide additional benefits by transitioning from a rear-load garbage truck to one with an automated side arm. This will allow the town to reduce the size of the garbage crew from three people to a single person driving the truck, meaning they can now utilize those employees in other ways within the public works department, increasing their productivity.

Eddie Smith has worked in the waste removal industry for 30 years. He admits there has been a learning curve for residents as the department shifts to the automated truck, but they have already been able to reduce the garbage collection crew to two and hope to soon start running it with only one person.

“It is faster, and it is safer,” Smith said. “It is good to have, especially weather-wise. You are not outside in the rain for long periods of time. You are inside, out of the heat.”

“This [purchase] is allowing us to be more efficient in that process and improve the way we do it. And it is safer for our staff,” Franzese said. “There are a lot of reasons why we were really thrilled to be able to make this change. And it is not very glamorous, but I would say it is really important.”

Overall, Spencer has taken on several projects that will serve the town today and in the long term. They have the vision in place, and now they have access to the funds to make that vision a reality.

“The way all of these things have worked together over the last few years has allowed us to do things here that I think for a long-time people wanted to do or maybe had ideas, but they just did not know how to raise the funding to make it happen,” Franzese said. “It has allowed us to do a lot of different things at one time that really were not a possibility beforehand.”

Special thanks to the Town of Spencer and NCPRO (North Carolina Pandemic Recovery Office) for their collaboration on this project.


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