Mini-park donation made by friend of dead serviceman

By Tom Joyce

February 22, 2014

A long-running issue regarding funding for a downtown mini-park has been settled, thanks to an unexpected $45,000 donation by a local man seeking to honor a friend killed in World War II and the Blue Ridge Hotel.

That contribution was disclosed during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners Thursday night, when one order of business was discussing how to make up for a financial shortfall for the downtown facility. The board allocated $70,000 in municipal funds last year for the mini-park that will be built at the corner of North Main and West Oak streets and contain benches, landscaping and other amenities.

But the lowest of four construction bids from local contractors ended up being in the $100,000 to $105,000 range, thanks largely to a desire to include a gazebo to host musical performances. And the fact the gazebo's design mirrors the architecture of the historic Blue Ridge Hotel that once occupied the corner proved to be the catalyst for the $45,000 donation.

Fond Memories

Perry Robertson, a retired local businessman who is 83, was employed at the hotel in his younger days along with his close friend, Carlos Warren Jones, and also lived there.

“I've just got a lot of good memories about it,” Robertson said Friday of the time when he and Jones worked and boarded at the hotel during the week, and spent weekends at their families' homes elsewhere in town.

“We shared a room together,” Robertson recalled. “We were just young teen-agers — I was only about 13 or 14 years old at the time.”

Jones later would make the ultimate sacrifice for his country during World War II while serving as a member of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater. But the thoughts of his friend have remained with Robertson — along with their days at the now-razed hotel.

Officials Elated

For months, city leaders struggled with how to finance the mini-park that was accompanied by cost estimates much higher than originally projected, while reviewing a variety of designs along the way.

During an earlier meeting on Feb. 6, the commissioners had delayed a decision on awarding the construction contract to the lowest bidder for the job, Smith-Rowe, to allow the matter to be discussed by Mount Airy Downtown Inc. It funds infrastructure improvements in the central business district using proceeds from a special tax.

That group agreed since the last commissioners' meeting to support fundraising efforts for the mini-park, and the commissioners were scheduled to discuss the proposed awarding of the contract to the Smith-Rowe company again Thursday night. However, what was unforeseen was the donation by Robertson.

Mayor Deborah Cochran said before the issue was addressed that “new information” had emerged about the funding. And she then invited governing board members of the downtown group to come to a podium — Ted Ashby, Gene Rees and Tom Webb — along with Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison.

“I'm here to tell you tonight that we have raised the money,” Webb said regarding the shortfall of about $35,000 — the difference between the low bid and city allocation of $70,000.

Ashby explained later that Robertson had been monitoring the progress of the mini-park development at the site he holds so dear, which led to the substantial donation.

“He contacted me and expressed an interest in the project and it went on from there,” Ashby said.

Robertson wants the facility, including the gazebo and a turret resembling what the old hotel had, to be dedicated to the memory of his friend killed in the war.

“He wants to see it done right,” Ashby said of Robertson's outlook for the mini-park. “He's a highly successful individual.”

Before retiring, Robertson spent many years in the machine supply field and managed a metal-fabrication business.

City officials greeted the donation with surprise and elation.

“We all want to shout,” Mayor Cochran said.

Commissioner Dean Brown pointed out that had the matter been decided months ago as some on the board had advocated, the city would have missed out on the gift. “I'm happy this is happening tonight,” Brown said.

The board awarded the construction contract to Smith-Rowe. Negotiations are planned with that company over the next couple of weeks to firm up the price tag in the $105,000 range. The addition of extra amenities also will be explored, since Robertson's contribution is providing about $10,000 more with which to work.

“It's nice to have TOO much money,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley remarked.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.