Greenville Election: Cryptocurrency mining question splits council hopefuls

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This is the latest report in a series about Greenville City Council races.

Incumbent Greenville City Council members stand by their votes to allow cryptocurrency mining facilities to operate in the city, but most challengers say they need more information before deciding how they would have voted.

Only one candidate, Elizabeth “Liz” Liles, who is challenging incumbent mayor P.J. Connelly, said she would have pushed to get more community involvement in the decision-making process.

In November, Minnesota-based Compute North, which describes itself as a “sustainable, cost-effective computing infrastructure,” failed to locate a data processing facility near Belvoir Elementary School.

The group had selected a site less than a mile from the school to house 89 modular data processing containers. Parents and other community members told officials the loud noise from cooling systems and electricity used by facilities would negatively impact quality of life.

In January, the Greenville City Council voted 4-2 to allow large data processing facilities that mine cryptocurrency to operate within city limits without a special-use permit. Two types of facilities — centers where equipment is stored in buildings and facilities where equipment is stored in modular units — are permitted.

Nathan Cohen is a financial advisor and former chair of the Young Professionals of Pitt County running for the District 3 seat. The East Carolina University graduate said that he cannot accurately say whether he would have voted for or against the decision to permit cryptocurrency mining in Greenville.

“I’m just not aware of enough of what occurred to be able to tell you,” Cohen said. “I know that city councilmen have been privy to a lot of information and know a lot more.”

Cohen said before he could say which side of the argument he would fall on, he would like to have been privy to the same information as the council was.

“I’m somebody who is very analytical and it would help me to have all the facts before formulating an opinion,” he said. “Obviously, sitting on the City Council if I end up winning the election, I would have all the information and be able to make an opinion based on that.”

Marion Blackburn, who also is running for the District 3 seat, said she’s no expert on technical questions raised about a crypto mining operation in Greenville. However, she feels that the council did not fulfill the wishes of the public when making the decision.

“To be an expert on the engineering, the power usage and the pressure on power grid from something like this is not my domain,” Blackburn said. “What is my domain is, as a public servant, what is our job number one? Our job number one is to listen to the people we represent. That’s what concerned me about that process.”

Blackburn said the sheer volume of people speaking out against the data processing facility meant that officials should have taken a beat before making their decision.

“It is required of public officials to stop, pause, study, consider and listen,” Blackburn said. “I don’t believe that happened. The failure is the council did not really take into account the considerable public voice that was speaking about this issue.”

Like Cohen, Blackburn said she is not sure how she would have voted if she were on the council. She said she would have called for further study into how a facility like Compute North’s would impact the area which would have made the decision making process longer. She also said that a decision like that needs to account for elements of economic development and infrastructure.

“Let me clarify — I wasn’t on the council. I wasn’t privy to all the information,” Blackburn said.

Cohen said that he believes the city has done well on its mission of economic development in the area. He said that he hopes to be able to make decisions that will help young and maturing families as a council member.

The District 3 seat is up for grabs after sitting Councilman Will Bell announced in February his candidacy for the council’s at-large seat. Bell has represented District 3 since 2017 and is running unopposed.

Greenville’s mayor does not vote on issues unless a council vote splits 3-3. However, a mayor’s interest in an issue has been known to influence council votes.

Liles said she would have pushed to get more public input and information about data processing facilities. There should have been multiple discussions at multiple forums, she said.

“When people feel they are being left out of the process, that they are being excluded from decisions that impact their lives, that is hurtful,” Liles said.

After residents of Belvoir attended the first public discussion about Compute North’s request, they felt that the deal was done, she said.

“I believe that is part of what we are seeing now and why there is so much pushback is because decisions were made before people were even considered in the process,” Liles said.

Connelly said the City Council was responsive to residents’ concerns and adopted additional rules preventing such facilities from locating in industrial areas located in the center of Greenville. The rules also require the facilities to be located on lots that are at least 35 acres, and that there must be a 2,500-foot radius between the facilities and residential properties and schools, as well as vegetative buffers along the property.

Connelly said he appreciates the time and research opponents put into issue. However, many of the opponents live in neighborhoods that were built after the 1960s, when Burroughs Wellcome — now the Thermo Fisher campus — was built in northern Pitt County. With that facility, it was a given the surrounding areas would draw different industries, he said.

“I think a lot of discussion has been based on one specific company and I don’t know if it’s fair or not,” Connelly said. It’s unknown if Compute North will locate in that industrial area. The city has received no plans from the company.

“At this point, I don’t know of any development that is going to take place in the near future,” Connelly said.

District 4 incumbent Rick Smiley said he wishes the council could have held the public hearing on the data processing facilities ordinance in person instead of through Zoom.

The council canceled the in-person session at the last minute, citing rising COVID-19 infections, and instead held a Zoom meeting on Jan. 25. The council held an in-person meeting three days before the canceled session and its meeting in February.

Smiley said people who accused the council of not doing enough research are wrong. He spent numerous hours reading the emails of opponents and the materials about data processing facilities.

He also disagrees with the complaint that the decision was rushed.

“Anybody who comes before City Council deserves to be treated equally and everybody deserves to have their say and have a decision made,” Smiley said. “When we delay things it’s usually because people on both sides of the issue want an extension. But if someone is saying, ‘I have a proposal before you and I would like you to make a decision,’ they have a right to that.”

Smiley’s opponent, chiropractor Robert McCarthy, said he doesn’t know what stance he would take on revisiting the data processing facilities decision.

McCarthy said he’s followed the discussion on local talk radio but would like to hear directly from the company that would benefit from the new ordinance, the opponents and members of City Council.

“I don’t have all the details. I would consider or reconsider anything but I have to hear both sides fo the story,” he said.

McCarthy said he would perhaps like to visit a community that has an operational data processing facility or center that is performing cryptocurrency mining.

District 2 incumbent Rose Glover and challenger Tonya Foreman both opposed the ordinance.

Glover said she couldn’t support the ordinance because based on her reading, cryptocurrency mining appears to be a form of gambling, not unlike the lottery. She’s also read about the negative effects of cryptocurrency mining in other communities.

Glover and Councilwoman Monica Daniels voted against the ordinance.

Foreman, who helped organize the original protests, said it appeared the council’s vote was predetermined. She’s also concerned because the sites discussed for locating the facilities are in marginalized, minority communities.