Durham residents had their say. Now the city will get an LGBTQ youth center and more.

Durham City Hall, photographed in March 2019.
Durham City Hall, photographed in March 2019. dvaughan@newsobserver.com

Durham’s first foray into letting residents decide how their tax dollars are spent will help fund four new city-wide projects, including an LGBTQ Youth Center.

For Asher Skeen, a 20-year-old transgender man, having a center could mean everything to local LGBTQ youth, if it’s done right.

“I think the biggest thing that the city of Durham should do is to listen to the voices of queer youth and people in the community and ask them what they need,” Skeen said. “What [do] they need out of the space? What would make it helpful and a good place to go?”

Projects chosen through Durham’s participatory budgeting program will receive funding in the city’s $477.8 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Durham is the second city in the state behind Greensboro to offer participatory budgeting. Greensboro started its program in 2014 and divvies up $500,000 among its five city council districts.

More than 10,000 eligible Durham residents voted during May, said Robin Baker, the city’s budget engagement coordinator.

“We are so excited about the level of participation and engagement in this first attempt,” she said. “We accomplished a lot of goals, including reaching 10,000 voters.”

The City Council pledged $2.4 million to be divided equally among the city’s three wards.

An initial list of more than 500 ideas was pared to 40 that residents could choose from. And when the votes were counted, 14 projects, including four considered city-wide, were selected.

In addition to $113,301 for the LGBTQ Youth Center, citywide projects will provide $404,352 for technology for Durham Public Schools, $395,757 for improved bus shelters and $169,950 for accessibility ramps.

‘Sense of identity’

“While I was trying to figure myself out and explore my own sense of identity, the LGBTQ Center of Durham was a place where I could go and speak with people who were [transitioning],” Skeen said in an interview.

“Even people who were younger than me and in the same journey and place as I was were trying to figure themselves out,” he said. “So getting to share experiences and ideas was really helpful.”

The nonprofit LGBTQ Center of Durham opened three years ago when Skeen was 17. Before then, he said he struggled to find an intentionally inclusive LGBTQ space. The new youth center will be affiliated with the LGBTQ Center, but it will operate as a separate space, said executive director Helena Cragg.

In developing the new city-funded LGBTQ Youth Center, Skeen believes the organizers should help young people learn about things that aren’t being taught in school. “Things that are lacking in accessibility right now are STI prevention, general health care or mental health care supportive networks,” he said.

Ward-winning projects

In addition to the city-wide projects,

Ward 1 approved four projects: a STEM & Entrepreneurship program in association with Durham Parks & Recreation ($99,121), street trees ($67,980), historic monuments on Fayetteville Street ($89,702) and ADA equipment for Drew Granby Park ($79,310). Ward 1’s total was $697,233.

Ward 2 approved two projects: grants for lighting and security cameras at Durham Housing Authority communities ($113,300) and bus shelters on Fayetteville Street ($158,260). Ward 2’s total was $633,040.

Ward 3 approved four projects: health and wellness grants for El Futuro ($96,168) and The Life Center of Durham ($145,991), lighting and security cameras at Durham Housing Authority communities ($57,783) and improvements at Belmont Park ($124,630). Ward 3’s total was $785,692.

The projects chosen will be implemented during the next three years with the goal of getting half of them underway during the next year, Baker said.

None of the three wards spent all of their allotted money, so it will be rolled over into the next cycle, which will occur in the fall of 2020, she said.

City-wide projects

DPS technology

Durham Public Schools identified a need for working projectors as a major priority. A 2018 statewide survey found DPS lagging in satisfactory technology. “The money will be used for projection, display, and class interactive systems to enhance the educational experience for our teachers, largely replacing outdated equipment,” said DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth.

LGBTQ+ Youth Center

The new LGBTQ+ Youth Center will allow the current center to expand its mission in Durham for the city’s LGBTQ+ youth population. The center will consolidate resources currently scattered around Durham, which include programs and educational events for youth wishing to develop a positive self-concept, resiliency, building social and vocational skills, and leadership skills.

Improved bus shelters

The shelters proposed across the three wards are based on locations identified by the community. The bus stops lack shelters on their side of the street and are located in marginalized neighborhoods. Improving the bus stops with shelters and aesthetic and functional amenities will improve the rider experience and may increase ridership.

Accessibility ramps

Durham has a program that helps low-income homeowners have accessibility ramps built but does not offer the same benefit to renters The city, which estimates about 10% of its population has a disability, will work with a nonprofit to help renters who need ramps or other reasonable modifications. Habitat for Humanity of Durham has a program with the city to make modifications for disabled homeowners. The new program will help renters.

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Jacquelyn Melinek covers metro news for the News & Observer, where she works to update readers about the latest in government, crime, schools and other local news stories. She is a Stembler Scholar, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the School of Media and Journalism and grew up in Westchester, New York.
Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.