G.K. Butterfield rode around Henderson on Thursday when it looked its worst. The thick clouds provided a gray cast to a bleak midwinter landscape devoid of greenery. A light rain added to the chill of a temperature in the upper 30s. Few people were outside, and usually crowded porches were empty.
A white city van carried the congressman and 10 others by the bashed-in doors of abandoned homes in the Orange Street corridor, through the fallen grace of Carolina Avenue, past the boarded-up windows of Hillside Avenue, amid the twisting roads and muck-filled streams of Booth and Flint, along the line of burned-out shells on Alexander Avenue, around the caved-in remains of the South Henderson School, and into the wreckage and “R.I.P. Lawrance” graffiti of David Street.
And the freshman Democrat from Wilson saw nothing that shocked him.
“There are so many similarities between Henderson and Wilson,” Butterfield told a lunch gathering at Uptown Rose that afternoon. “We took an extended tour this morning, toured your community, and I hate to say this to you, but there were no surprises.”
Butterfield’s visit to Henderson with four members of his staff was a homecoming of sorts. Dollie Burwell, who heads his district office in Weldon, said her first job out of high school was at the pickle plant that where Dabney Exchange now sits. Corliss Clemonts-James said her parents worked in the Henderson mills. And the congressman said his father had his first dental practice in Henderson in 1927.
But Butterfield also said he felt at home because Henderson’s problems are so familiar to him.
“I can just see my hometown as we drove,” he said. “I know the challenges you face. You don’t have the tax base that will support all of the programs that need to be started in this community. So you’re going to need some help. You’re going to need some help from the private sector. You’re going to need help from the state government and in turn from the federal government.”
Butterfield commented several times during an hour drive through the good and bad of Henderson that what he saw reminded him of Wilson.
“Henderson is a mirror of Wilson in many ways,” Butterfield aide Shelton Barnes said later.
As the cargo van rolled down Parham Street at the back edge of the Old West End and he was informed that they were entering a “mixed” neighborhood, he recognized signs of his hometown and said: “I’ve never been in this neighborhood before, but 30 years ago this was all white, right? And now it’s in transition.”
Mayor Clem Seifert called the area “a perfect microcosm of Henderson.”
Perhaps most important for the prospects of Butterfield’s helping Henderson, he has experience dealing with the blight of decaying homes that pull down neighborhoods.
In a scenario common in Henderson, Butterfield said he put some of his earnings as a lawyer 30 years ago into investment real estate in Wilson. Some homes he kept as rental properties; most he renovated and sold.
“But several years ago the community of Wilson became pretty much like the community here in Henderson, and it became an unwise investment to invest in dilapidated housing. And so I stopped investing 10 years ago,” Butterfield said.
He changed course five years ago, when a property with five run-down buildings became available across the street from his church. In another echo of Henderson, multiple heirs of the previous owner shared the property and wanted to sell it for $125,000. “And I said, ‘You’re crazy. I would not offer more than $25,000 for that property. I just wouldn’t do it.’ ”
The owners took $25,000, and Butterfield was back in the business of buying dilapidated housing. He tore down three of the buildings and fixed up the other two for rental, and he hasn’t looked back.
He said he has spent $1 million on inner-city Wilson real estate in the past five years. “Some of my friends have told me that I’m crazy to do this, but I have a long-range vision that it’s going to be a good investment for me, and it’s going to be good for the community.”
Butterfield offered some tips for how Henderson can tackle its plague of 150 or more abandoned houses, many of which, like that property he bought five years ago, are owned by groups of heirs who have left rural North Carolina and are never coming back. Butterfield said North Carolina law allows you to buy a partial interest from one of the heirs, providing the leverage to force the other owners to sell to you or to sell the whole property.
Regardless of ownership, he said, the city can’t allow dilapidated houses to remain.
“I want to challenge you here in Henderson to become more aggressive and tear down these properties and clear this blight. You have the power to do it under the law,” Butterfield said. “Put these property owners on notice. ‘If you don’t fix the property up, we’re going to tear it down.’ And follow through with what you plan to do. Tear those properties down.”
During the tour, he said dilapidated housing “just drains the community” and must be fixed or removed. He asked Seifert what was stopping Henderson.
“The pocketbook,” Seifert said.
Butterfield suggested trying to get 180 days’ credit from demolition companies. That would give Henderson time to try to collect the demolition costs from the homeowners; failing that, the city could attach a lien and foreclose on the property, then sell it to get the money for the demolition and maybe more. The city can’t hesitate to foreclose, he said.
That process would work well with a nonprofit organization Seifert envisions to buy and redevelop entire neighborhoods, Butterfield said. “And hopefully in a matter of time you’ll have your city cleaned up and have some clear land.”
The city still would need significant federal aid, both for neighborhood redevelopment and for multimillion-dollar upgrades at the water and sewer plants, without which the area won’t be ready for new industries that could cut into the state’s highest unemployment rate, the mayor said.
“We’ve got some water and sewer needs that will cripple this region,” Seifert said. He said Henderson has done what it can to improve its situation, but after the loss of textile jobs and the related corporate tax base, “we just can’t do any more.”
He and Butterfield were in sync about the role of the federal government.
Seifert said the government shouldn’t solve problems, but should supply the resources to carry out the solutions.
Butterfield said he emphasizes to his staff that the job of a congressman is to get resources into his district. “I will do my part as your elected representative to begin to bring you the resources into Henderson.”