Despite numerous discussions about Market Street spanning more than a year and actually holding a meeting there on May 8, Mount Airy officials still can’t make a decision about improvements for the street.
The latest discussion occurred during a city board of commissioners meeting Thursday night, when a wide range of options was explored for the downtown site — but with no decisions made.
Several schools of thought surround the ultimate fate and scope of infrastructure work needed on Market Street, a historic local street that was long home to Kasco Produce and other businesses before a period of decline. It recently has undergone a rejuvenation with new businesses locating there, now numbering about seven, including a craft brewery operation. That has fueled plans for a major streetscape effort.
• There is a pressing need to repave the street, in the wake of a recent water and sewer rehabilitation project undertaken by city government which left cracks in the asphalt and caused leaks at some businesses which owners blame on the project. This step would cost about $13,000 for a “skim coat” of asphalt to around $40,000 for a more permanent paving solution.
• In addition to repairing the rough surface, there is pressure among some city officials and property owners on Market Street to proceed with the streetscape project that would include a wide range of amenities, such as crosswalks, granite curbing, decorative lighting, granite islands, brick pavers, landscaping, a brick sitting wall with a granite cap and column and a concrete sidewalk with brick banding. The plan, with $375,000 price tag, also calls for removable bollards to allow festivals on the street and improve tourism.
Property owner speaks
Based on a lengthy discussion Thursday night, some commissioners are reluctant to spend a large sum to benefit a single 400-foot street, which they believe could set a bad precedent with citizens seeking the same improvements elsewhere in town.
Also, Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said she does not want to fund major improvements without first knowing the leaks are fixed, to avoid later having to tear up the street to fully address repairs.
“This is out of the pockets of the people,” Brinkley explained. “Another reason I don’t want to do the big job first is the Surry Arts Council parking lot needs paving.” Brinkley unsuccessfully sought fellow commissioners’ approval last year for that effort on city-owned property.
She also says there’s no guarantee a large investment to make Market Street “beautiful” would drive more traffic there. “No one knows the answer to that.”
Commissioner Jon Cawley said he favors making Market Street a pedestrian-only area, which property owners oppose but might justify it being turned into the “Mona Lisa.”
“(But) if it’s going to be a thoroughfare, I don’t see it being any different from any other street — right now I think we ought to put the $13,000 pavement on it,” Cawley added.
Others, however, seem to favor the full streetscape plan, saying property owners have developed businesses in the expectation the city government would follow through with it after giving preliminary approval in early 2016.
Will Sheppard, one Market Street property owner, told officials Thursday night that much private investment has been made by him and others thinking the streetscape plan was imminent.
“What I invested would not be there,” if he knew city officials were going “to throw it up in the air,” Sheppard said.
He also referred to past comments by some commissioners who have questioned spending a huge sum on a 400-foot street.
“Quit judging something by how long it is,” he told the board. “Think of the impact this (the facelift) could have.”
Commissioner Steve Yokeley, a steadfast supporter of the full project, was sympathetic to that concern.
“I don’t think we can forget the hundreds of thousands of dollars the property owners have already spent,” he said.
Middle ground urged
Some support seemed to emerge at the meeting for a median approach that would be more extensive than superficial paving but greatly scaled down from the $375,000 streetscape plan.
“I know the cheap way out is not always the best,” Commissioner Dean Brown said of the $13,000 paving job as an improvement option. “I’d like to see it done correctly.”
Yokeley agreed, saying the $13,000 effort might be OK in the short term, but for the long run “I think it needs to be done correctly,” he said.
“I think it needs to be done right just as soon as possible.”
That line of reasoning drew a sharp reaction from Commissioner Jim Armbrister.
“I think there is some confusion about what is ‘doing it right,”’ he said in advocating simply paving Market Street and repairing sidewalks there.
“To me, that’s ‘right,’” Armbrister added. “Is adding planters ‘right’? That’s a separate kind of ‘right.’”
Armbrister says Market Street should be brought up to standards of other streets in Mount Airy, indicating a middle-ground scope of enhancements.
“I’m thinking we can do this for less than $100,000 — I’m trying to be practical with it,” he said of basic improvements that would still promote “a vibrant atmosphere” on Market Street.
“I know we are talking about a big investment, but at this time I’m not looking to do so.”
Armbrister also questioned whether the recent water-sewer work caused the leaks, as multiple property owners claim, saying other factors could be involved rather than the explanation of “just because something is leaking and the city did work nearby.”
Two complications also have served to delay or undermine the full streetscape plan, the discovery of an old concrete street at the site which would hamper the project unless removed — representing $50,000 of the potential $375,000 price tag.
Also, during design work for the streetscape, it was discovered that existing public parking space on Market Street is actually privately owned, which requires an easement or other deal with its owners before the facelift could proceed and incorporate that space.
It was mentioned Thursday night that a solution is being explored with the owners, Rick and Charles Vaughn.
The discussion ended with the commissioners voting 5-0 to have updated price and other information prepared for their next meeting on June 1 in hopes of making a final decision.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.