No ‘personal agendas’ in MSD expansion, Ashby says

By Tom Joyce

June 3, 2014

While a move to enlarge a special tax district in downtown Mount Airy is encountering opposition from affected property owners, the leader of group spearheading that expansion says good things would result.

“It’s all about economic development,” said Ted Ashby, president of the governing board for Downtown Mount Airy Inc., a non-profit organization that oversees activities in the city’s Municipal Service District (MSD) using funding from a supplemental tax. He pointed to growth that would occur as a result of the expansion.

“That helps everybody there,” Ashby said during a recent interview. “A rising tide raises all of the boats.”

The tax district is now situated along the North Main Street corridor, but Ashby’s group is seeking the annexation of 18 additional parcels of property to the west of that. A vote on the proposal is expected Thursday by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.

Its approval will subject the property owners to an additional tax of 21 cents per $100 of assessed valuation effective July 1, on top of regular property taxes.

The proposed MSD expansion — which opponents see as forced annexation — is not an isolated event, but has occurred within the context of other recent events affecting the same section of town. Included were the formation of a controversial redevelopment commission and the purchase of Spencer’s Inc. property there by the city government.

A common thread among all three is the involvement by a core of local businessmen: Ashby, Gene Rees and Tom Webb.

However, Ashby, the downtown board president, says there is no basis for the public to be wary of the expansion plans for the MSD or the intentions of any of the group’s members.

“We’re an all-volunteer board and we want to see the area succeed,” he said of the enlarged MSD.

“We don’t have any personal agendas in this,” Ashby stressed in responding to concerns about the expansion, saying it is not a move meant to benefit a select few.

“I just don’t agree with it,” he said of that notion.

Sequence Of Events

An undercurrent of distrust surrounds the MSD expansion in light of related actions of city government.

One was a vote in April, against citizen wishes, to form a redevelopment commission that will identify blighted commercial properties in town and devise plans for making them economically viable. Opponents fear the wide-ranging powers the group will wield, including seizing private property through eminent domain.

Another was the city government’s purchase last month of 10 acres of land and buildings formerly used by the Spencer’s Inc. apparel manufacturing company — which are within the area proposed for the MSD expansion.

After prominent downtown businessman Gene Rees appeared to be the low bidder for the property during a May 15 auction, Mount Airy officials revealed they’d secretly bought it instead and simply had used Rees as an uncompensated bidding agent.

City leaders’ interest in the site and their committing of funds for the purchase was finalized during closed-door discussions to which the public was not privy.

They also have disclosed that the catalyst for the redevelopment commission plans was the Spencer’s property going on the auction block in early February.

Along with Ashby — the president and CEO of Surrey Bank & Trust — Rees serves with Mount Airy Downtown Inc., of which he is vice president and also chairs a design committee of the group as well as serving on its executive committee.

Tom Webb, another downtown businessman — the owner of Old North State Winery — and former city grants administrator, is a member of the Mount Airy Downtown governing board and serves on its economic restructuring committee. Webb also was appointed last month as a member of the new seven-member redevelopment commission.

Who Is MAD?

Mount Airy Downtown Inc. (MAD) is a successor organization to Downtown Mount Airy Inc. (DMI), which controlled MSD funds and projects from the 1970s until just recently. But the two are essentially the same except for administrative tweaks.

The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted in July 2013 to dissolve DMI and create Mount Airy Downtown, which City Attorney Hugh Campbell explained at the time was a requirement of the municipality joining the state Main Street Program.

Both were designated as non-profit organizations exempt from federal income taxes, but the new group has 501(c)(3) status, as mandated by the state program, rather than being a 501(c)(4) organization as the previous one was. This allows more fundraising flexibility, including donations being deductible as charitable contributions.

In addition to such donations and the MSD tax funds at its disposal, bylaws of the group enable it to borrow funds for downtown programs.

The city government historically had partnered with DMI to provide advice on the expenditure of MSD funds. Contracting with that group was chosen from among other options, including having the commissioners serve in this role or forming an advisory board to do so.

Selective Membership

Mount Airy Downtown’s governing board has 10 directors and there is one paid employee, Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison, who began work last July. The group meets on the second Tuesday morning of each month in a conference room at City Hall.

The membership is carefully crafted, according to Ashby. “They’re broken down into classifications,” he said. “They’re picked primarily by vocation.” Included are property owners, merchants and resident members, or those with expertise in fields such as finance, real estate or insurance. Members generally serve three-year terms.

“You have to rotate off every number of years,” said Ashby, who has served “off and on, for probably close to 10 years.”

In addition to Ashby, Rees and Webb, the board includes Treasurer Joe Reid, a retiree who lives in Renfro Lofts; Amy Slate, owner of Scarlet Begonias, a downtown business; Julie Teague, owner of Mayberry Consignments; Gail Theard, senior vice president of BB&T Insurance Services; John Collins of Homestead Realty; and Phil Marsh and Jennie Lowry, representatives of the Downtown Business Association that has spearheaded marketing efforts in recent years.

Committees within the group handle different functions.

Ashby chairs the executive committee of the Mount Airy Downtown board, which has Rees and Reid as members.

Its economic restructuring committee includes Webb, Reid, Ashby, Teague and city Public Services Director Jeff Boyles.

A design committee is chaired by Rees, with John Collins, Marsh, Ellie Webb and Ann Yokeley as members.

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