A controversial redevelopment proposal took center stage Wednesday night during a city candidates forum at the Andy Griffith Playhouse.
Only three of the 11 people seeking election or re-election to three council slots expressed outright support for the redevelopment plan in its present form, which covers the former Spencer’s industrial site as well as thriving businesses nearby designated as blighted.
Other candidates involved in the 2015 municipal election said they have problems including such private property in the plan along with the Spencer’s site downtown which is now owned by the city government.
The Westside Redevelopment Plan, now in a draft stage awaiting final changes and approval, stemmed from the purchase of that property last year by the municipality. A local businessman secretly bid on the site on behalf of the municipality without knowledge by the public.
This led to the formation of a redevelopment commission that recently approved the draft plan including the private as well as public holdings, which its members believe will draw investment by developers in projects possibly including a hotel/convention center and create jobs.
While he supports redevelopment in general, the city’s at-large commissioner, Jim Armbrister, who is facing three challengers, said during Wednesday’s “Rock the Local Millennial Vote” candidate forum that parts of the draft plan “are more difficult to accept.”
“I don’t think it should include private citizens who don’t wish to be involved,” Armbrister added, saying he believes in allowing private enterprise to flourish. “Let these property owners choose for themselves.”
Such longtime local businesses as Worth Honda, King’s Garage and Pioneer Printing are included in the redevelopment process, which also allows property to be taken by eminent domain under certain conditions.
Bruce Springthorpe, one of two people seeking to unseat North Ward Commissioner Dean Brown, said he “absolutely” does not support the way the redevelopment effort has evolved.
“It had its beginnings in secrecy and back-room deals,” Springthorpe said of discussions that were closed to the public and led to the formation of the seven-member commission amid public concerns. “It was rammed down citizens’ throats despite their objections.”
That sentiment was shared by South Ward Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, facing a write-in challenge from Bill Clark.
Although she voted to appoint members to the seven-member commission, which includes two council members, Brinkley said she has been disappointed with its work.
“I had faith in these volunteers and what they would be able to accomplish,” Brinkley said at Wednesday night’s well-attended event during which she and other candidates were applauded at times after making their statements.
“The committee (commission) was formed to redevelop the old Spencer’s mill area into a vital part of our downtown,” Brinkley continued. “Only the property owned by the city was the part to be redeveloped.”
The present plans “look good,” Brinkley said, “but they extend beyond the boundaries of what the (redevelopment group) was commissioned to do.”
She said only the former Spencer’s complex should be included at this time.
“I have lost faith in the (commission) because I believe that their decisions have been one-person-driven,” Brinkley said, without naming that individual. “I believe that the committee has lost their direction.”
Clark, Brinkley’s opponent, agreed.
“I support the redevelopment commission as long as it deals with city property and not private property,” he said. Clark also thinks the city commissioners should serve on the redevelopment group because they would be elected members accountable to voters.
That sentiment also was espoused by Gene Clark, one of Armbrister’s three opponents, who said he believes the redevelopment group should be reorganized to include only the commissioners, who could appoint others to an advisory capacity.
“If it addresses only city property, I don’t have an issue with an appointed board,” Clark said.
“I support the redevelopment of the Spencer’s property — I currently don’t support the draft plan,” which as time passed somehow encompassed the private sites, Clark said.
Brown also expressed concern about the plan, but stopped short of a firm condemnation.
“I am excited about the Spencer’s redevelopment,” Brown said, citing its potential for new business opportunities it might bring to areas along Market and Willow streets, including night life enterprises. “I need more research, though, with the total redevelopment effort.”
Brown also seemed to favor plans for roundabouts, or traffic circles, at the far end of the redevelopment district in an area near the former Koozies nightclub.
“But if they take people’s personal property, I need more research,” added Brown, who is seeking his third term as a North Ward commissioner and said he was concerned about the eroding of private property rights.
Said Gail Proffitt-Kernodle, another at-large commissioner candidate, when weighing in on the redevelopment: “I support the Spencer’s part.”
Mayoral candidate David Rowe gave a lukewarm endorsement to the redevelopment effort, saying he supports the majority of the plan.
“I think it’s a great concept, but we need to make sure it’s a concept that can be supported by all citizens, including those landowners whose property may be affected,” Rowe said. “I believe in the integrity of the people (commission members), that they are trying to do the right thing for the city.”
At another point during the forum, Rowe said of his plans if elected that “the top specific goal I have is the renovation of the Spencer’s property.”
Although candidates responded to a specific question regarding the redevelopment process, three other candidates frequently expressed their approval of the plan at every opportunity Wednesday night — representing a vocal minority.
“I absolutely support the Mount Airy redevelopment draft plan,” said Steve Yokeley, a city commissioner who is serving as acting mayor and running against Rowe for that post.
Yokeley cautioned that the plan is still at the draft stage. It is open to more ideas and suggestions “so this area can be the best it can be,” he said of the boundaries eyed.
“There should be no losers,” he said of the intent behind the process.
Jerry Taylor, who is seeking the at-large commissioner seat held by Armbrister, was vehement in his support for the present revitalization plan.
“The Westside Redevelopment project is a once-in-my-lifetime event, and I want to be part of it.” Taylor said.
“I’m one hundred percent behind the Westside Redevelopment project.”
Taylor said he wants to see more residential and other projects in the area in addition to the hotel/convention center idea and will work with developers to bring these about if he is elected.
“All this is possible with the Spencer’s property.”
N.A. Barnes, another of Brown’s opponents, also expressed support for the redevelopment draft plan and chided its detractors.
“I think it’s time we quit badgering,” Barnes said, “and get on with the show.”
The mayoral race and that for Brinkley’s commissioner seat are not included in the city primary that will culminate on Tuesday, but will be on the general election ballot in November.
Tuesday’s two top vote-getters for the at-large and North Ward commissioner seats also will square off in November.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.