State officials want to know what happened to $1 Million in grant money Pocomoke City used to build a restaurant, but activists say the funds should have been used to fund a recreation center and continue community policing programs
TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland. I’m standing here on Fourth Street where another young life was lost to violent crime. It’s part of a dangerous trend, an upswing in crime that has continued since the loss of Pocomoke City’s first black police chief, Kelvin Sewell. As the city of Pocomoke continues to work through the consequences of firing its first black police chief amid mysterious circumstances, many aspects of how this town has been governed in the past have come under scrutiny. The poverty of the black community called the Back Burn, for example, and a recent surge in crime, all emblems of the open wounds Sewell’s abrupt dismissal has only made worse. Sewell was fired in 2015 without explanation. He filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination was at the root of his dismissal. The Justice Department has since joined the suit, but now another outside agency is taking a closer look at the city, which bills itself as the friendliest on the eastern shore. This is the Riverside Grill. It was supposed to be built with state and federal grants totaling more than three-quarters of a million dollars, but documents uncovered by the Real News showed the city also took out a $200,000 mortgage, bringing the final price tag to nearly $1 million. However, state real estate records show the property is worth a third of that, which is why state officials confirmed to us they are now investigating the project and how the money was spent. We asked city manager Ernie Crofoot for comment on the probe. He declined, but the Reverend James Jones says the city has invested in the wrong priorities. JAMES JONES: If I were to put a blame on anything that has happened in Pocomoke over the last year, I would have to put the blame on our officials, on our public officials. The reason why I say that is because they have created such a wave of problems for us. Granted, when Chief Sewell was with us, whatever they feel that they have on him cannot have been so serious as to change the whole setting of a city that has turned itself around on a positive note, and now watch everything fall apart and go down hill. TAYA GRAHAM: Nothing that two years ago, Pocomoke closed a recreation center near the Back Burn without providing an alternative, a move he likens to the firing of Sewell, shortsighted and ultimately bad for the city. JAMES JONES: No murders, no serious crimes, no breakings and enterings. None of those transpired during the tenure that we had K.D. Sewell with us. TAYA GRAHAM: Which he says is linked to the recent rash of violence, because for the second time in under a year, a young man was killed on the corner of Fourth and Market, the heart of the city. The Real News attended the funeral, but were asked not to film, but it was clear the upswing in crime has taken its toll. Still, like the other missteps, it is the people who are punished, says Jones, not the political leaders. JAMES JONES: They write grants to put a restaurant up and to do so many other things that we don’t even find necessary for the betterment of the community, and they can’t pull a grant together to fix a national memorial site up so that kids will have a place to go and to utilize. This is very upsetting. TAYA GRAHAM: It is those same residents who must try to repair the damage and heal the soul of a town that for now simply suffers. This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for the Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland. For full disclosure, Stephen Janis wrote a book with Kelvin D. Sewell.