After months of discussion, Mount Airy officials have decided to spend up to $300,000 on a controversial streetscape plan — but similar to the roadway targeted, the process was rough, particularly for one dissenting commissioner.
Judging by recent history, it wouldn’t be a city board of commissioners meeting if a lengthy debate on improvements to Market Street weren’t included, and a council meeting Thursday night was true to form in that regard.
And once again, officials were divided on whether to make cosmetic paving and other repairs, or more extensive improvements to the site viewed by streetscape supporters as a valuable gateway. That’s due to its location between the heart of downtown Mount Airy and the Spencer’s redevelopment area eyed for a hotel and other projects.
“I think the board needs to decide, what do you want Market Street to look like?” Mayor David Rowe said Thursday night of the question facing the commissioners. “That’s the main thing.”
After debating that issue, the board ended up voting 4-1 to commit $300,000 for a streetscape plan. While that is less than a potential $375,000 price tag earlier identified through a contractor’s bid and the cost of extra amenities, it is expected to provide a major facelift to Market Street, which has become home to a cluster of business in recent times where streetscape supporters see huge tourism potential.
Savings have been identified by the use of concrete for curbing and guttering rather than more expensive granite, and the elimination of seating wall, granite column, truncated dome and other fixtures. The cuts also included removable bollards allowing the 400-foot street to be closed to traffic for festivals, although officials later expressed support for retaining those.
Process irks Armbrister
While the proposed cuts amounted to a $156,977 project that Commissioner Jim Armbrister was ready to support Thursday night by making motion to approve it, his tone changed completely when he found that it left out other major elements.
Items omitted included decorative lighting for the street, (a separate $60,000 cost), the removal of old concrete under the street ($50,000) and landscaping ($10,000), the latter to include elements such as planters and islands.
Armbrister grew noticeably agitated upon learning that figures outlined Thursday night by City Engineer Mitch Williams were not summarized on one page, but spread among multiple pages.
“Why would you leave the lights out?” Armbrister asked Williams, who was standing at a podium nearby.
Armbrister added that he had requested a bottom-line figure. And “now I get thousands of dollars and cents thrown at me,” he said of items such as lighting that he deems essential.
“I guess I should take responsibility for assuming work would be done properly,” the city’s at-large commissioner continued. “Never assume.”
Armbrister said he wanted the city engineering staff “to bring us some real figures.”
Both Williams and Public Works Director Jeff Boyles explained that the numbers were presented as they were due to Sowers Construction, the low bidder for the streetscape project, not handling other facets such as the decorative lighting, which would involve Duke Energy. Also, some of the additional figures represent work to be done by municipal crews.
“I understand your frustration,” Boyles told Armbrister.
Property owners support
Adding to the project deliberations Thursday night were comments by a core group of Market Street property owners, who have appeared at several recent council meetings to seek improvements. One of their chief concerns is correcting basement leaks they contend were triggered by an earlier project to rehabilitate water and sewer lines there.
Support also was voiced by them Thursday night for full streetscape work during an open forum portion of the meeting.
“We’ve made the investment on our side,” said one, Dr. Jan Kriska, an owner of the new Thirsty Fish craft brewery operation on the street.
Kriska said he was not asking for a “patching-up” project, but the other improvements to make Market Street attractive, citing its tourism value.
“The longer we stall, it will be more expensive.”
Will Sheppard, owner of two properties on Market Street, mainly spoke about the need to correct the drainage problem, although the city engineer and some on the board question the water-sewer project as a major contributor to basement leaking. It is believed to mainly result from water pouring off the roofs of downtown buildings.
But Sheppard also defended the full streetscape plan and addressed concerns raised by both Armbrister and Commissioner Jon Cawley Thursday night and earlier, that it would set a precedent by singling out a street for improvements other business areas don’t get.
“Well, let’s set that precedent,” Sheppard told board members regarding the project on Market Street. “It’s a statement street.”
Sheppard questioned whether comparable improvements will be demanded elsewhere. “I don’t think people will be fighting some place in the middle of nowhere to have granite curbing.”
Board makes decision
After the usual long discussion on Market Street, the matter was finally settled when Commissioner Steve Yokeley reminded fellow officials that the majority of them had committed $300,000 for the streetscape proposal in an earlier goal-setting discussion.
“I’d really like to see us have a budget of $300,000 and see what we can do with that,” Yokeley said, which hopefully will include the decorative lighting. Also to be considered is a drainage project involving a system of inlets and grates to stem the roof water, costing $25,000 to $30,000.
A motion by Yokeley to pursue work capped at $300,000 was approved 4-1, with Armbrister casting the opposing vote.
Achieving that task will require Boyles and Williams to negotiate with Sowers Construction to determine if prices contained in its bid earlier this year remain current.
“It’s out of our hands,” said Commissioner Cawley, who earlier had suggested that Market Street might be best-suited as a special pedestrian-only area if commissioners planned to make such an investment for a thoroughfare similar to others locally.
Officials mentioned Thursday night the possibility of the costs being higher than first anticipated, especially if the project must be re-bid.
Assuming everything falls into place, the commissioners will give formal approval to the final figure and include money for the improvements in the next municipal budget to go into effect on July 1.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.