As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States and caused shutdowns and closures throughout the nation in March 2020, the City of Morganton persevered. Even in the face of unprecedented challenges, the City of Morganton continued to serve its citizens, make headway on important projects, and kept working hard to make Morganton a better place for everyone. While City Hall was closed to the public for a limited time, City staff kept working hard while following all Centers for Disease Control guidelines to advance City initiatives and secure a bright future for Morganton.
“As we arrive at the first anniversary of COVID-related shutdowns and precautions, it is important to look back and consider all we were able to accomplish while facing seemingly insurmountable challenges,” said City Manager Sally Sandy. “City of Morganton staff have always risen to the occasion, no matter what challenges they are facing. Obstacles presented by the pandemic resulted in our staff finding even more ways to better serve the public we all work for, and Morganton is better for it.”
A Brief Summary of City Accomplishments throughout COVID-19 in 2020
1) The City began taking utility payments over the phone at our business office for the first-time ever. This method of accepting payments continues to be a majority of our daily business.
2) Our business office worked outside to alleviate drive-thru backups on due dates and busy days while City Hall was closed to customers due to N.C. Governor Roy Cooper’s orders.
3) From March 2020 to January 2021 – unpaid utilities total $557,255 for water sewer and electric; $189,024 for CoMPAS. Because of payment arrangements and CDBG funding to non-profits of $193,000, that unpaid balance is being chipped away each month. As of January 2021 the balance 60-days or more past due is approximately $87,000.
4) The City’s Public Information Office worked to keep citizens informed of COVID-19 related measures, producing videos, Public Service Announcements, press releases, and print materials — in English and Spanish — for all COVID-related announcements, while simultaneously working to promote everything else the City was doing while COVID-related shutdowns and closures were in effect.
5) The City shifted personnel in operations shut down by COVID restrictions to other departments and duties in order to keep as many employees as possible working during a time of economic hardship, avoiding layoffs. No seasonal part-time employees were hired.
6) Within four hours of Governor Cooper shutting down indoor dining, the City of Morganton Main Street Office assisted downtown restaurants with setting up curbside service. Main Street also set up parklets and streateries throughout Downtown Morganton to allow for enjoyable outdoor dining experiences and continue to draw business to downtown restaurants. These efforts were recently recognized by the North Carolina Department of Commerce during the annual North Carolina Main Street Conference, which gave our Main Street Office an award for Best Economic Recovery Initiative. Our Main Street Office also assisted with promoting businesses via social media, videos and press releases.
7) Morganton held one of the very few Christmas Parades that happened in 2020. We counted 780 cars that attended our “reverse” parade, where families were able to drive through streets with stationary floats on them.
8) The City also held one of the very few fireworks shows that happened in 2020, by holding a “drive-up” event. Fireworks were set off in freedom Park, and cars were able to park in nearby areas and watch the show.
9) The City refinished gym floors and installed heat and air conditioning at Collett Street Recreation Center and Mountain View Recreation Center during the shutdown.
10) Completed the Catawba River Soccer Complex Phase III expansion, including a Catawba River Greenway expansion, at a cost of $1.4 million. Partnered with Carolinas Healthcare System Blue Ridge, Case Farms, Morganton Parks and Recreation Foundation, Linda Wall, and the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund Foundation to fund the project.
11) Completed an engineering study of Bethel Park.
12) Resurfaced and widened the Freedom Park walking track.
13) Parks and Recreation conducted a drive-thru Halloween Event and Easter egg event.
14) Main Street held a Halloween scavenger hunt – “the Halloween Huntacular” – to encourage people to visit downtown businesses while staying safe.
15) Parks and Recreation found a way, even with Gov. Cooper’s prolonged restrictions, to have:
• Youth baseball/softball
• Adult softball
• Senior baseball
• Senior Citizens programming
• Youth soccer and flag football
• Aquatic programs – indoor and outdoor
• Supported high school swim teams
• Hosted 17 travel tournaments for baseball/softball with 644 teams
16) The Morganton Community House continued operating on a limited basis by serving meals to local industry and small civic groups, and instituted Thursday night family takeout meal nights.
17) The City made 4 small business loans:
• Fairfield by Marriott - $75,000 – created 10 new jobs
• The Olive of Morganton - $30,000 – created 1 new job
• Dogs Unleashed - $30,000 – created 2 new jobs
• Pho Loa - $10,000 – created 1 new job
18) Resurfaced Bouchelle Street and North Terrace Street at a cost of $365,000.
19) Signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a private company for a new sewer line that will serve 240 new apartment units on the Broughton District Property – projected to be a $25-30 million investment in the community.
20) Designed, financed and started renovation of the Courthouse Square at a cost of $3 million. This project will be complete this year.
21) Completed a new Connector Road at Exit 105 – Albert Tron Boulevard – and performed utility work to allow Longhorn Steakhouse to open.
22) Completed 25% plans for the upcoming College Street Redesign, which will overhaul the current layout of the street and cost $3 million.
23) Bid out and began construction on the new Downtown Greenway Connector, which will connect Downtown Morganton to the Catawba River Greenway at a cost of $1.4 million. This is projected to be completed in early 2022.
24) Partnered with Foothills Conservancy to plant 85 trees at Catawba Meadows Park and 63 trees at Freedom Park.
25) Partnered with the Morganton Service League to renovate Martha’s Park at a cost of $125,000. The Morganton Service League provided funding to aid with this renovation.
26) Reviewed plans for a multitude of new businesses, including Longhorn Steakhouse, Dunkin’ Donuts, Human Bean, Tire’s Plus, Starbucks, Unix, the renovation of Cole’s Auto and more.
27) Completed engineering on the City Water Plant coagulation project.
28) Completed design and engineering on the Silver Creek Sewer Pump Station, and applied for $600,000 in grants to help fund this project.
29) Completed water line improvements on Queen and King Streets during restaurant shut downs caused by COVID-19 to improve water quality for customers.
30) Contracted to replace 100 electric poles.
31) Completed an upgrade of the power grid at Victory Pointe.
32) Began the process of replacing all streetlights with LED bulbs, and are replacing substation breakers.
33) Reduced electric rates by 3% for electric customers during the pandemic.
34) Secured a memorandum of understanding with the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics to design and bid a new substation to serve the southern end of the City. This is a $3.5 million project.
35) Completed the final stages of CoMPAS’ upgrade to all-digital service.
36) Upgraded and expanded internet capabilities two times to respond to demand.
37) During 2020, CoMPAS added 420 new residential internet customers, 31 new business internet customers and 23 new commercial voice customers.
38) Public Safety found a way to still hold their Blue Elves and Operation Blue Christmas events, and hosted a community picnic in public housing with the assistance of Morganton Parks and Recreation.
39) Council hosted the first City Council Town Hall meeting to address concerns from our community.
40) Worked with several groups during social unrest to address pertinent community concerns: revamped and re-energized the Human Relations Commission; Received a Dogwood Trust Grant of $16,000; held Public Safety meetings and open dialogues with a variety of community groups.
41) Applied for and received 2 grants for electric vehicle charging stations – will be located at Starbucks and in the Morganton Heights area. Project total will be $277,000. We are currently in the application process for an electric vehicle charging station to be located in downtown Morganton.
42) Human Resources worked with the Census Awareness Campaign. The City worked with the family of the late Jose Sic to schedule events and bolster census participation among our Hispanic community.
“As you can see, for a year when most of life was shut down, the City of Morganton did not,” Sandy said. “I could not be prouder of my fellow employees. They continue to amaze me. This list is by no means exhaustive, it is only the highlights of all we accomplished. We are very proud we were able to continue serving the citizens of Morganton and Burke County.”