Finley alumni, city officials discuss East Chester improvement grants

The Finley Restoration Association, a group of Finley High School alumni, recently met with city officials to discuss ways to best use a c\Community Development Block Grant obtained on its behalf.

The City of Chester received the $25,000 grant in December on behalf of the Finley group to assist in efforts to enhance the appearance of the East Chester community where the S. L. Finley Center is located. The Finley Center, which served as Chester’s black high school until integration, is owned by the Finley Restoration Association, a certified non-profit that acquired the building in 2009. Receiving this grant made the Finley group eligible for two additional $500,000 grants. To qualify for these grants, documentation was required to prove that 51 percent of East Chester residents live in the low-to-moderate income range. Last fall, Chester City Councilmen Odell Williams and George Caldwell spearheaded the project to encourage East Chester residents to complete income level surveys.

Chester City Administrator Jeff Kerr and Catawba Regional Council of Government representatives, Grazier Rhea and Robby Moody, met Thursday with about 25 Finley High alumni members and East Chester residents to discuss how to conduct the study to assess the needs of the community. The grant money can be used to make minor repairs to make a home “more livable,” but no total renovation can be done to any one home, said Rhea, the Catawba Regional community development director.

There is a 10 percent match on the $25,000 grant the city received, she said. This money, which is due in April, has to be paid up front and has to be paid in cash. The Finley Restoration Association will pay the $2,500 match.

Moody, a senior planner with Catawba Regional COG, will assist with the “roadmap” for what is desired for the community, he said.

“We want it to be y’all who decide what you want in your neighborhood,” Moody said. “This is the first step.”

Moody warned that $1 million in grant funding “is not going to fix all the problems,” in the East Chester community.

“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “We’re going to come up with collective solutions.”

Moody projected it will take through December to get the process completed.

“We need to find out what needs to be done before we do anything else,” Kerr said. “We’ve got to let the study go through. This is specific for this area and it’s going to take a lot more people than what’s in this room.”

The Rev. Sam Moore, a Finley alumnus and association member, immediately responded, “That’s what we’re all about – community.”

Kerr said he was told that “East Chester is the best organized group in Chester proper.”

“The community has to be involved,” Kerr said. “I’m actually very excited about this.”

Kerr encouraged the Finley group to consider other community “partners.”

“We want to try to maximize the dollars,” he said.

During the meeting, questions were asked about the grants and how funds will be administered if the $500,000 grants are approved because this money will be under the city’s control and not the S.L. Finley group.

“You can’t put grant money into something that’s not publicly owned,” Rhea said.

East Chester resident Makeda Baker asked about a “checks and balance system” to assure that money earmarked for East Chester will be used for East Chester.

“We actually write the checks,” Rhea said. “The state looks at the checks we write, they look at the contracts we have, and there’s an auditor to check to see that we’re spending where we’re supposed to.”

By Denyse Middleton, Staff Reporter with The News & Reporter