Local Teen Seeks To Transform Kinston's Vacant Lots

Apr 10, 2017

Founder and CEO of Kinston Teens Chris Suggs launched the Adopt A Vacant Lot program earlier this year.  The initiative seeks to transform empty lots into small-scale farms, community gardens and recreation areas. 

Kinston, a city of 22,000, doesn’t quite have the charm of some of the coastal towns.  But it’s steeped in history and these days, revitalization trying to create a new identity for itself.  Granger Stadium has a baseball team again, there’s award winning restaurants and a thriving craft brewery.  And, the African American Music Trails and the CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center delve into the area’s rich past.  Even though parts of downtown Kinston are prospering, many sections remain blighted.   There’s numerous abandoned buildings throughout the city, and there’s the struggling Vernon Park Mall.  Pockets of potential – in the form of vacant lots – are prevalent in the downtown area.

“Back last year, in 2016, we began realizing the number of vacant lots the city of Kinston currently owns. 

Chris Suggs is the Founder and CEO of Kinston Teens and the new initiative that seeks to transform those blank canvasses into community amenities.

“It was actually over 1,000, so over 1,000 vacant properties owned by city government.  So we began conversations with our city planning department trying to figure out ways that we can make use of these lots in a way that benefits city government and the community at large.”

The 16 year old bespectacled Kinston native met me Wednesday morning on East King Street near downtown.  Suggs started the non-profit organization Kinston Teens two years ago as a way to create civic engagement and community service opportunities for young people.  The non-profit kicked off the Adopt-A-Vacant Lot program in February with a mission for groups to adopt underutilized spaces in the city and convert them into small scale farms, community gardens or recreation areas.

“This lot we’re standing at now is located directly across from the Kinston City Hall on King Street in Kinston.  And it’s one of the lots available in the Adopt-A-Vacant Lot program.  It’s a beautiful lot on a major roadway in town.  The possibilities are absolutely endless as to what an organization could turn this lot into.”

This site, on the corner of East King and South Independence Street, is an open grassy field, about an acre in size.  Four giant oak trees line the perimeter to my right, and a paved concrete sidewalk borders the property to my left.  Ideas have been submitted on how to revivify this space, but Suggs has his own idea.

“Considering this is a really large lot or another large lot we have in this program, I would love to see a kickball field in Kinston.  So, I absolutely love kickball, I played it a lot in elementary, middle school so I would love to see us just have a huge kickball field in Kinston.”

So far, Kinston Teens has received five applications from local organizations interested in acquiring vacant lots through the program.  The timeline for submitting an application to approval is about about a month.  Groundbreaking ceremonies are planned at a couple of vacant lots in the coming weeks.  Suggs says organizations can apply for a grant of $750 in funding from Kinston Teens to buy supplies or get technical assistance for planning.  

“Once they submit that initial application, our young people review the applications and work with them to finalize the layout and landscaping plan.  Then, we submit them over to the city planning department who actually approves the final application to make sure there’s no liability issues and that this is something that will benefit the community at large.  And once it’s approved by the city planners, they get the ball rolling and they can begin work on their new adopted lot.”

There is no cost to adopt a vacant space, but there are stipulations:  no concrete or permanent structures.  For a two year period, the organization is expected to maintain the property and implement their plans for the lot.

“And then after two years, they can apply to receive the lot free from the city of Kinston, for a non-profit purpose.  Or at fair market value if they’re doing some type of business venture off of it.”

Way down the line, when the property is purchased, permanent facilities can be constructed.  Lenoir County Planning Director Adam Short has been involved with the Adopt-A-Vacant Lot program since its inception.

“We really want to do whatever Kinston Teens has as a vision for those properties.  I think pocket parks, I could see community gardens, ways to possibly incorporate neighborhood solar development facilities, things like that.”

Short says it’s encouraging to see youth excited and engaged in projects that improve the community.  He adds bringing new life to vacant lots makes Kinston more attractive to tourists, businesses and for people looking to locate to the area.

“With everything else that we have going on, that we can spruce up any vacant lots that we might have and it would certainly entice folks down the line to invest in those areas.”

Kinston Teens has engaged over 100 youth – middle school to college aged- in a variety of community outreach programs, from mentoring at local elementary schools, leadership training, and cleanup projects along the streets in Kinston.  The Adopt-A-Vacant Lot program, Suggs says is just one more example of enhancing the city at the same time providing a positive alternative to get youth involved in local community activities.

“It’s showing that despite the negative things you sometimes might hear about our town, there’s lots of great things happening.  We have the downtown area booming and growing.  We have these lots available in downtown along the MLK Corridor that are just going to do so many get transformations through these projects.  Within a couple of years, Kinston is going to be the place to be in North Carolina.  I’m excited about it, and I can’t wait to see all that’s going to come.”

Suggs will soon be graduating high school and starting college at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill this fall where he plans to study political science and sociology.  While he’s at school, he feels confident the 30 members of Kinston Teens will keep the program going and growing. 

“Even though I’ll be just an hour and a half away, I’m sure I won’t have to have so much a hand in it because of the passionate young people part of our organization.”

Suggs plans to return to Kinston in 2021 when he finishes college.  He says he might even run for Mayor someday.

“There’s going to be probably no more vacant lots in town.  That’s my goal in four years that all the vacant lots are adopted.