A plan to offer grants and other assistance to private property owners in Mount Airy’s Westside Redevelopment area generally is being viewed positively by city officials — but concerns and questions have emerged since it was presented Wednesday night.
One of the larger issues centers on how much it would cost to fund grants to aid building, facade and other improvements among 20 different privately owned sites bordering South and Pine streets near the former Spencer’s industrial property. Another is who would pick up the tab — with all roads at this point appearing to be headed to the taxpayers for that.
The private property in question, including such businesses as Worth Honda and King’s Garage, were included in the Westside revitalization plan against their owners’ will by the Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission (RDC) and declared “blighted” in the process. The commission was formed last year to spearheaded new private investment in the old Spencer’s buildings now owned by the city government.
In what it calls an effort to reach out to and help the private property owners involved, the RDC is eyeing a three-step series of grants for building-improvement projects such as a facade-grant program for external enhancements including landscaping and grants for demolishing buildings.
The proposal calls for the demolition grants to cover 100 percent of the cost of razing a structure, while the facade- and building-improvement grants would fund up to half of eligible project costs.
Participation in the program by property owners would be voluntary, RDC Vice Chairman Chip Pulliam says. The plan calls for their holdings to be in a special “revitalization zone.”
$600,000 price possible
Pulliam said on Friday the total cost for the program could be in the neighborhood of $600,000.
However, that would depend on how many property owners apply for and receive grant assistance, according to Pulliam, who presented the plan at an RDC meeting Wednesday night. He was quick to say, however, that whatever the total price is, there would be an offset from higher tax revenues resulting from property upgrades and new business investment.
Yet it’s that up-front funding aspect of the grant program that has members of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners concerned.
“It sounds like a good thing, except for who has to provide the grant money,” Commissioner Dean Brown said Friday.
“And if it’s some other agency other than the Mount Airy city government, I would have three cheers,” added Brown, who attended Wednesday’s meeting and heard the presentation on the grant package.
“But if the city has to provide it out of their budget, I’ve got questions about it,” he said.
The RDC suggested that redevelopment grants from state and federal sources might be obtained for the improvements.
“But we never know which ones of these are available” at any given time, Pulliam, the RDC vice chairman, said Friday, when no specific ones were cited.
“It depends on federal and state funding,” he said.
“It’s an evolving thing — it’s just on a piece of paper right now,” Pulliam explained regarding the funding and additional aspects of the grants program.
Other commissioners on Friday questioned whether even a $600,000 estimate is reliable given all the variables involved.
Commissioner Jim Armbrister, who also sits on the redevelopment commission that contains two city council members and five citizens at large including Pulliam, said history shows that estimates sometimes aren’t borne out by reality.
“That makes me extremely cautious about what it could cost the city,” Armbrister said.
“Just like the logging situation,” he added regarding a recent proposal aimed at selling city-owned timber at Westwood Industrial Park for up to $400,000 under initial estimates. The city eventually learned it would only make about $75,000 if it proceeded.
“Those figures were extremely skewed,” Armbrister said.
Brown said the cost uncertainty also bothers him, especially for demolitions, for which Pulliam said the RDC hopes to have an unlimited ceiling.
“When you start tearing down and rebuilding, it can run into a lot of money,” Brown said, pointing to unknown factors that don’t surface until work starts. “You run into asbestos issues and all kinds of things.”
Concerns about funding the program also were offered by Commissioner Shirley Brinkley Friday.
“It is going to be difficult to say if that’s too much or not enough,” Brinkley said of the $600,000 figure suggested.
Brinkley said she needs more research on the grant program proposal to fully understand its implications. “I need to study it, and where the money is coming from.”
The program to aid private property owners in the redevelopment area also could impact city government in other ways, including plans for providing free technical assistance to those pursuing improvements.
“The technical assistance would come from the city of Mount Airy planning department,” Pulliam said Friday of that facet.
Benchmark, a private firm, is under contract to provide specific municipal planning functions.
There also possibly could be facade or similar help from the North Carolina Main Street Program, which was among the benefits it offered when Mount Airy joined that program in 2013. “We don’t know yet,” Pulliam said of this and other elements of the plan.
“This is still a work in progress.”
Compromise for unity?
Pulliam explained Friday that he was the author of the grants plan, which was approved unanimously by the redevelopment commission Wednesday night, but that it does reflect input from others.
“I’m not going to take credit for it — it’s not totally mine,” he said of the program concept.
He said the first person to bring a grant program idea forward was Jon Cawley, a city commissioner and former member of the RDC, who resigned from that group last month and paved the way for Armbrister to join the commission.
Pulliam mentioned that there had been contacts before the plan’s preparation with various officials, including commissioners, but only on an informal, face-to-face basis.
“We (RDC) members have not talked to them altogether — just individually when we can.”
Commissioner Cawley wasn’t at Wednesday’s meeting when the grants plan was presented, but based on what he has learned since, thinks it has merit.
He said his initial reaction was that it offers a way to reach a kind of compromise and “create unity” with the property owners involved.
The grant assistance, Cawley said, might be a way to compensate owners who have been fearful of lowered values of their real estate from being declared blighted and the power of eminent domain possessed by the redevelopment group.
“None of those people asked to be in there,” Cawley said of their inclusion in the redevelopment plan. “I don’t know of a single person who wants to be in there.”
Cawley does not support forcing anything on the property owners, even grant assistance.
“I did read where it was voluntary and was excited by that,” he said, saying this represents good news for the owners.
“They don’t have to do anything, but if they choose to, they would get help,” he said of grant assistance. “But that will depend on it being voluntary.”
There was concern Friday among commissioners that the grant effort could set a bad precedent for the same type of assistance being sought for private properties in other parts of town demanding equal treatment.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.