Downtown has been the focus for revitalization efforts for the City of Mount Airy for many years, with quite a few developments taking places over the more recent years.
In 2013, the city was accepted into the N.C. Main Street Program.
The program was developed by the North Carolina Department of Commerce to assist selected communities across the state in restoring their economic vitality to historic downtowns.
The requirements for approval were that the city must have had a certified population of less than 50,000 at the time of its application.
Also, the city had to commit to hiring a full-time downtown manager, while providing funding for operating the program as well, according to the North Carolina Rural Development Commerce website.
Upon acceptance into the program in 2013, Lizzie Morrison was hired as the Main Street coordinator. Previously Morrison worked at the Surry Arts Council where she explains she thought she had found her niche.
“I had never worked in economic development before, I’m an artist,” said Morrison.
Quickly, Morrison realized that there was more to the job than economic development.
“My job is in part to focus on bringing partnerships to the table, to get things done,” said Morrison, explaining that she works closely with business owners, property owners, investors, the city and various other stakeholders within the community to complete projects that better the area.
Previously, the city relied on Downtown Mount Airy Inc. to spearhead any improvements to the downtown region.
In the mid-1980s the Downtown Mount Airy, Inc. board was formed with the intent to focus on the revitalization and capital improvement projects needed for the downtown region.
That board dissolved in 2014, once the N.C. Main Street Program was successfully underway. A new board, Mount Airy Downtown, Inc., was formed to take over the responsibilities and to guide the newly hired downtown coordinator in the right direction.
Since the 1980s the Municipal Service District tax has help to fund any projects to improve the downtown region by both boards, according to Morrison.
Today, the tax generates an annual budget of $72,000 for Mount Airy Downtown Inc, stated Morrison.
”The budget is approved by the city on an annual basis,” added Morrison.
The Mount Airy Downtown, Inc. annual budget is $80,000, according to Morrison. “Fifty-five thousand of that comes from the MSD budget as a monthly appropriation to be used for downtown revitalization projects and programs,” she said. The other $25,000 is from fundraising efforts by Mount Airy Downtown.
Morrison explained that the average Main Street Program budget is $119,000 annually, “We’re doing pretty good with what we got.”
The largest annual fundraiser for the program is the Fiddle Crawl, which generates a majority of their funds, she said.
“The Fiddle Crawl is a public art program. I feel like this program has really helped to add pops of color to downtown,” said Morrison.
The Fiddle Crawl began with 12 large fiddle sculptures artistically designed, by local artists to promote tourism, art, and musical communities alike.
The fiddles were to pay homage to the area’s musical tradition, explained Morrison.
After being finished, the fiddles could be found on display in later months at various downtown locations, before being auctioned off.
Since the first public fiddle crawl, the event has progressed into the painting of actual fiddle instruments, banjos, and the newest edition of guitars, Morrison said.
As of last year, the event has generated more than $61,000 to date, “All of that money goes directly back into downtown,” explained Morrison.
However, the downtown coordinator swiftly explained that the capital improvement projects get done by fostering public and private partnerships.
“We can’t and don’t do it alone,” explained Morrison. “I don’t want anyone to think we take all the credit.”
Since the Main Street Program has been in place, several parking lots have been completely redone. Those lots include the lot on Virginia Street, The Post Office parking lot, and the Old North State/Brannock and Hiatt Furniture parking area.
However, that’s not the only improvement projects funded under guidance of the Main Street Program.
The Carlos Jones Blue Ridge Park was built on the corner of North Main and West Oak Streets. New recycling and trashcans have been placed along the streets of Downtown.
New benches for folks to rest at have been partially funded by the Main Street Program. Market Street and Canteen Alley received a “facelift” according to Morrison, through the efforts of the Main Street Program.
The most current of two on-going projects is the “Whittling Wall,” the wall is located on West Oak Street in downtown Mount Airy.
The project, when completed, will feature statues of local icons such as Grammy-winning country and pop singer Donna Fargo; Ralph Epperson, founder of local radio station WPAQ, which has preserved an area tradition with its mountain music format; old-time fiddler Tommy Jarrell; and others who have played a role in the development of Mount Airy.
The second on-going project is the Spencer’s building redevelopment.
The Spencer’s Mill was once a children’s clothing factory. Now the evolving plans for the mill seem to be for a hotel, upscale apartments and possibly some light industrial use. The timeline for the finished project is yet to be determined, according to city officials.
Once finished, the project is expected to generate $117,990 in combined annual property tax revenue, in addition to other possible revenues generates as well.
“Downtown has made so much progress in the last four years since MAD, Inc. started the Main Street Program, and we’re just getting started,” said Morrison.
“There are so many visual changes to downtown that have happened – over 24 facades have been improved with new paint, awnings, window replacement, or total rehabilitations. We are preserving our history with these unique buildings.”
In addition to preservation efforts, the community has gained some new businesses, and have very few vacancies left downtown, according to Morrison.
“The number of young business owners continues to grow, and has more than doubled since 2013,” she added.
“Beyond these major milestones and accomplishments, I think the coolest thing about how downtown has progressed goes beyond the visual changes that we can see, stated Morrison of the project completed since the Main Street Program was implemented.
“There is a new energy, and a new hope for downtown. People are investing more, locals are rediscovering their love for downtown because we are proud of this place.”
Morrison added that she has tracked more than $4.5 million in private investment within the downtown district since beginning her job as Downtown Coordinator and is expecting that number to double by the end of June.
“We have a lot of work left to do, and a long road ahead to get downtown where it needs to be. I feel privileged to be part of the progress that we’ve all made together so far, and I’m honored to keep pushing the needle alongside some awesome people,” stated Morrison.
Reach Eva Winemiller at (336) 415-4739 or on Twitter @ThePilotNC