It’s often said that time is money, and both were on the minds of Mount Airy residents who spoke at a gathering held to update the status of the Spencer’s revitalization project.
A sense of urgency was apparent among the dozen citizens offering comments during the Thursday night session billed as a special meeting/workshop of the city council to readdress its goals for the Spencer’s property bought by the municipality in 2014.
This occurred at City Hall before an audience of about 35 people, who in addition to hearing those objectives were given a chance to speak their mind on what’s been occurring – or not occurring – with the downtown project.
That number included former members of the controversial Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission, which the city Board of Commissioners dissolved in January because its revitalization plan also encompassed private property near Spencer’s and subjected it to the power of eminent domain.
“My concern,” said Alton Gaither, who served with the redevelopment group, “is that we’re stagnated – or seem to be.”
That was echoed by Allen Burton, another speaker, who suggested that the lack of physical progress the past two years at the 9.5-acre Spencer’s site and its cluster of blue buildings was creating a negative public perception.
“As we keep waiting and not doing anything, it’s like a sore,” Burton said of the redevelopment process, which will be dependent on historic tax credits for which there is a deadline. “I thought we would have it done by now – and we haven’t even started.”
Two developers – one interested in launching a four-star hotel and banquet center and the other upscale apartments on parts of the Spencer’s property – have been recruited so far as part of the effort, with more sought.
However, Gaither said he was concerned by the delay in actual work and five years from now doesn’t want to still be looking at the blue buildings, a symbol of the Spencer’s infant apparel-manufacturing operation that ceased in 2007.
“Let’s get started moving with the hotel, the banquet rooms – let’s do it,” he said.
Jerry Taylor, another who spoke concerning the delay, was a candidate in last November’s municipal election who supported the redevelopment commission plan.
“Are we any farther along than we were last November?” Taylor asked.
One tangible development that has occurred since January was local officials contracting with a Charlotte attorney and redevelopment expert, DeWitt F. “Mac” McCarley, to aid the city government in the process.
McCarley was present at Thursday night’s meeting and, after listening to citizen concerns about the apparent lack of progress, offered some reassurances along those lines.
He announced that the two developers now on board would like to break ground on their projects next spring, and in the meantime a vigorous effort will be mounted to get others interested in additional parts of the Spencer’s complex.
“We’re going to put the pedal to the metal,” McCarley pledged.
“We really need to move quickly; there’s no reason not to,” he added.
Mayor David Rowe offered a similar comment, geared toward the former redevelopment commission member:
“Mr. Gaither, the pedal is to the floor.”
And to Taylor, Rowe said that “things in government move exceedingly slow,” but efforts have been under way to bring the start of construction closer.
Burton earlier had said that the breaking of ground will provide a big boost. “When you see dirt fly … I think you’re going to see people come together.”
“Rest assured that we have been working hard the whole time up until now,” the mayor said.
City funding need
The money issue that also surfaced Thursday night produced some equally impassioned commentary.
Citizen Paul Eich said he was concerned that a large investment of city taxpayer funds might be required for the redevelopment process, which already has cost about $95,000 to buy the Spencer’s site, plus environmental studies done there.
“I’m tired of some of the investments – you guys are getting too expensive for us,” Eich told city officials, urging them to require developers to pick up the costs. “No further money from us (the taxpayers).”
Eich cited the work in the downtown area of local businessman Gene Rees, who has made a number of projects happen – including a condominium development now under way in part of the Spencer’s property – without public assistance.
However, McCarley said this might be unrealistic in today’s business climate.
“In my experience, very few of these projects get done without some public investment,” he said, including tax credits as well as local government appropriations. Developers are subjected to a huge financial risk when working with older buildings, McCarley explained.
He said developers also likely will expect the city government to donate the land and buildings involved – which theoretically would be recouped, along with any monetary investment – when the property goes back onto the tax books.
City officials agreed to that premise Thursday night by consensus, with Commissioner Shirley Brinkley mentioning that the purchase price of the property should be easily offset by the tax revenues.
Rees, another who spoke Thursday night, said that while he has not asked for funding from the city to aid his development efforts, the scope of the Spencer’s project is so enormous that local taxpayer dollars probably will be needed.
“The investment’s going to be large,” he said in advising Mount Airy leaders to participate in that and “not apologize for it.”
Also Thursday night, council members offered their views on the process as it stands now.
Although Commissioner Dean Brown cited specific entities he’d like to see on the Spencer’s property – a convention center to accommodate large meetings, an art center for sales of creations with space for classes and an educational center among them – others favored a general approach.
Commissioner Steve Yokeley said he believes the city government should make infrastructure, street and similar improvements and support developers wanting to locate projects there. “I don’t think we need to be picking winners and losers,” Yokeley said.
“We need to stay focused on developers making the decisions,” Brinkley concurred.
Everyone seemed to agree on at least one thing Thursday night: the Spencer’s effort could become the biggest economic-development project in Mount Airy history.
Said Ted Ashby, a local banker and official with the group Mount Airy Downtown Inc.:
“This is the most important project we’ll see in our lifetime.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.