Last updated: June 03. 2014 4:43PM - 635 Views
By - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com

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The overall plans by Mount Airy Downtown Inc. for the enlarged Municipal Service District (MSD) reflect a need to fill a void regarding its future — in the absence of anyone else taking the reins, according to Ted Ashby, the organization’s president.

“I’ve not seen anybody come up with an alternate plan for it,” Ashby said of the area involved.

“You hear good things and bad things,” Ashby added of a development effort now under way, “but nobody has articulated a plan for a private citizen to do it.” He said his organization would welcome any suggestions along those lines.

One questionable element of the process surrounds the fact that plans for the tax district annexation first arose during a closed-door meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.

That session on Feb. 20 lasted until about 1:15 a.m., and occurred after the commissioners had adjourned a regular meeting. During the closed-door portion, officials discussed the MSD expansion for the first time in addition to forming a redevelopment commission and the purchase of the Spencer’s Inc. property, according to records provided by the city clerk.

Yet Ashby said there was no deliberate intent during those discussions to keep under wraps the MSD part of the plan, which did not become public knowledge until early April.

“I don’t think that was the intent at all — I think it just happened to come up,” Ashby said of talk during the closed session about expanding the district.

“I think that was just by happenstance.”

Secrecy Abounds

The closed-door meeting on Feb. 20 reflects a trend this year among the commissioners, as downtown development efforts have unfolded.

Out of nine council meetings held so far in 2014, only two have not included closed sessions, in addition to another held during a winter planning retreat. City government records show these have encompassed discussions on the MSD expansion, the municipality’s purchase of Spencer’s Inc. property there and the creating of the redevelopment commission to control growth in that area.

The reasons cited for excluding the public, as allowable under the state Open Meetings Law, have included the attorney-client privilege on a least six occasions, along with economic development and property acquisition to a lesser extent.

A closed session also is planned at the end of the commissioners’ next meeting Thursday night, for contract negotiations and economic development.

A predominance of closed sessions has been the trend in the recent past, not only including 2014. In contrast, only 48 percent of council meetings held in 2009 included discussions barred to the public.

After the city council voted on April 3 to set a required public hearing on the MSD annexation, owners of the 18 parcels affected were notified by certified mail and invited to comment on the proposal. Four did so during the May 15 hearing, all of whom opposed being annexed because they saw no benefits from the higher taxation.

Benefits Lauded

Ashby said he understands how those facing increased taxation would not exactly embrace the MSD expansion with open arms. Included are the owners of two homes, who would face a tax hike of more than 40 percent as a result compared to a 4-cent reduction proposed for city residences overall.

Total levies from the MSD tax would amount to about $80,000 per year through the expansion.

“Nobody wants to be taxed more,” he said of their inclusion in the MSD. “Everybody has their own reasons and their reasons are very sincere, and I respect their reasons and I understand.”

But at the same time, “I don’t know if they’re really aware of the benefit we will receive,” Ashby said.

Grants and design funds to improve both small businesses and residences would be available for the district through the city’s recent involvement with the state Main Street Program, Ashby said. The program is designed to sustain the economic viability of downtown areas as a whole.

Various programs are in place to achieve the best use of property and will allow Mount Airy to receive assistance from the N.C. Department of Commerce which wouldn’t be available otherwise, Ashby said.

Property values of all concerned will grow as a result, which the Mount Airy Downtown president argues will benefit everyone despite the higher taxation.

“Through our grant projects, I think they would be able to recover a large portion of it,” Ashby said.

The new territory would cover sites on Independence Boulevard, Virginia Street and Pine Street, and the entire north side of Franklin Street stretching from Willow to South streets. Property eyed for the expansion is a mix of industrial, residential and business zones, but is a mostly commercial district sandwiched between residential areas including a significant amount of public housing.

Those boundaries are viewed as a “gateway” to the downtown that needs to be redeveloped accordingly, Ashby said of the 18 parcels contained in the defined area.

The city’s acquisition of the Spencer’s property, as well as the emergence of the redevelopment commission, occurred amid fears of someone else buying the site and leading to the relinquishment of its control.

“We thought that the Spencer’s buildings could probably use a lot of help in a master development and so could the Quality Mills building,” Ashby said of structures addressed by the new boundaries and the expertise needed. In decades past, the mere presence of Spencer’s Inc. served as a built-in gateway considering the thousands of people it employed, Ashby said.

“The Spencer’s property was one of the hubs of downtown, and that’s probably one of the things that made downtown successful.”

Ashby added that a residence or other property can’t be excluded from the proposed new boundaries as drawn. “In order to get a master plan for the whole area it would have to be included in the district, because all the area has to be contiguous.”

“Our largest stakeholder in the current district is residential,” he said of the Renfro Loft condominiums that border Willow, Virginia and Oak streets, “and they certainly see benefits from it.”

“Old” District Profited

Ashby said properties within the original Municipal Service District have benefited greatly. The district was formed in 1975 in response to a growing trend of shopping centers, such as Mayberry Mall, luring customers from downtown Mount Airy.

The main purpose of the MSD was to provide funds for parking lots to ensure convenience for shoppers as a common benefit for merchants. Most recently, more than $120,000 was spent to buy land and construct a lot on Virginia Street with about 50 spaces.

Under state law, such a service district is a defined area within a city where the governing board levies an extra property tax in order to provide needed additional services to the residents or properties in the district. Municipal service districts are most frequently established for downtown revitalization.

Over the years, uses of the tax money locally were broadened to also include facade grants to improve the appearance of storefronts. “Almost every merchant downtown has used it,” Ashby said of the facade assistance.

The MSD group also has used the extra tax proceeds to build much-needed public restrooms on North Main Street. And over the years it has maintained the parking lots, alleyways and other areas — “all those common areas that the public enjoys,” Ashby said.

“I can’t imagine how the downtown would have survived without it,” he said of the MSD. “Our track record speaks for itself.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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