Economic development is always a hot topic when political candidates get together, which was the case Tuesday night during a forum sponsored by the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce.
All five people vying for offices in the 2017 municipal election were seated on the stage of the Earle Theatre for the event, facing into an audience of nearly 100 people while responding to questions randomly drawn from a big glass jug.
Included were Mayor David Rowe and a challenger for his seat, Ivy Sheppard; incumbent South Ward Commissioner Steve Yokeley, and his opponent, Todd Harris, a former city commissioner; and Jon Cawley, a North Ward commissioner running unopposed.
And while the questions they fielded covered an array of topics, one common theme was the economic future of Mount Airy, including a project now under way to redevelopment the former Spencer’s industrial property now owned by city government.
All the candidates seemed to agree Tuesday night about the worthiness of that effort, but some differences did emerge about the role the municipality is playing.
“I think the Spencer’s redevelopment is the biggest economic-development project that’s ever happened in Mount Airy, certainly Mount Airy,” Yokeley said of the undertaking that began with the city’s purchase of the site in 2014.
Most recently, two developers seeking to re-use former Spencer’s property downtown for a hotel/banquet center and an upscale apartment complex are involved.
However, Harris, Yokeley’s opponent, took issue Tuesday night with the idea of local government owning property to be developed by private business.
Harris said he disagreed with the city’s purchase, which occurred more than three years after he left the board of commissioners, although what is done is done and Mount Airy should make the best of the situation.
However, Harris said he wouldn’t support such a plan in the future, explaining that the role of government is to make a “field” ready for “planting” by industry and letting the free enterprise market system do the rest.
Now that city government is heavily entwined with the Spencer’s property, Rowe said he thinks it will be a catalyst for further growth locally “once that’s under our belt.” The mayor said additional development will be needed afterward, and “Spencer’s will spawn that development.”
Sheppard, the mayoral challenger, believes the Spencer’s project will lead to more restaurants and other commercial growth around town, but local officials should look beyond that.
“We can’t be complacent,” she said. “If we do, things are just going to pass us by.”
Yokeley offered a similar view about the need to plan for life beyond Spencer’s. “If we don’t do anything, things are going to get worse,” he said, stressing that the city should rely on comprehensive and strategic plans that have already been adopted.
“But the strategic plan wallows in a lack of funding,” Mayor Rowe reacted, citing a costly idea it includes to move utility lines underground as an example of a source of “tension” between older and younger city residents regarding such aesthetic improvements.
Not enough applicants?
Jobs was another issue dissected by candidates Tuesday night, but not in the conventional way. Instead of simply declaring the need for more employment opportunities locally, questions were raised about the readiness of the labor force here.
Rowe highlighted that issue in answering a question about possibly developing a business incubator plan, possibly with the county, to stimulate growth, which also is related to past efforts to establish a shell building to lure industry.
First of all, there must be people who want to be in an incubator environment, Rowe said of a concept that helps new and startup companies to develop by providing services such as management training or office space.
“It’s a difficult situation — one of the problems we have here is personnel,” the mayor said in relaying a sentiment expressed by the Surry County Economic Development Partnership. “We don’t have the people to fill the positions that we have.”
“Sometimes it’s difficult to find people who can do these jobs,” he said of some technical and other positions that go unfilled.
Cawley lamented the lack of a work culture he said society needs to return to, noting that this is especially the case among some younger residents who have sense of entitlement concerning job success. “There’s a sense that they’re owed something.”
There was disagreement on the idea of an incubator itself, with Sheppard pointing out that it has boosted the economies in other areas.
Cawley said such a plan has been discussed by city officials, but “insurmountable obstacles” have emerged when getting into the details of the move.
Harris expressed caution on that issue.
“I am open to the question of incubators,” he said. “But what is the cost to taxpayers and what is the reward at the end?”
Yokeley also questioned the incubator, saying, “I’m not sure how close that is to getting off the ground.” The South Ward incumbent said he thinks the municipality mainly should rely on the resources of the Economic Development Partnership and apprenticeship and other programs offered by Surry Community College for growth.
Harris said that despite whatever economic path Mount Airy chooses, the city should not abandon the small-town values that make life here what it is today.
“If we maintain that sense of community, then everything else will work itself out,” the South Ward challenger said.
The city election will be held on Nov. 7, nearly two weeks away, but early voting already has begun in Dobson and will expand to a site in Mount Airy next week.
(Note: Other topics addressed during Tuesday night’s forum, such as race relations and distrust of government, will be highlighted in additional news coverage on Thursday.)
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.