City leaders want ‘blighted’ area reduced

By Tom Joyce - [email protected]

Commissioner Jon Cawley makes a point Thursday night while criticizing a plan for “blighted” property in Mount Airy.

It’s not often one arm of city government criticizes others, but that’s the case concerning a “blighted” label assigned to properties near downtown Mount Airy which are targeted for redevelopment efforts.

Four of the five members of the city board of commissioners believe only the former Spencer’s industrial site bought by the municipality in 2014 should be covered in a revitalization plan now being prepared — but not private property nearby, which is now included.

And since it all has been designated as blighted, there is concern for the effect on that property’s value.

A council uprising over that broader area being involved came to a head during a meeting Thursday night, and unexpectedly.

It would lead to Commissioner Jon Cawley comparing his objection to one that might be raised at a wedding as the bride and groom head down the aisle.

“I’m not getting married to this,” Cawley said of the present blighted-area plan.

“I’m not in favor of the supporting the (larger) area approved by our planning board,” he added in reference to a 9-0 vote by the city advisory group in late April certifying that designation.

That preceded another vote in May by the Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission — a group formed last year to spearhead the Spencer’s property revitalization — to officially designate the so-called blighted area.

Cawley also serves on the seven-member redevelopment commission along with Commissioner Steve Yokeley, its chairman, but was the lone dissenter in the May vote on the boundary.

It includes not only Willow Street, where most of the Spencer’s buildings are concentrated, but property on other nearby streets such as Franklin, South and West Pine, resulting in the blighted label for some commercial sites that are thriving businesses.

Much also has been made of the fact that the redevelopment commission has the power to seize property by eminent domain.

Owners alarmed

The blighted-area issue and the redevelopment plan itself were not scheduled for discussion Thursday night. But Cawley requested at the start of the meeting that this be placed on the agenda in response to recent concerns raised by affected property owners.

These stemmed from a newspaper article last Sunday reporting on the progress of the redevelopment effort, which included certification descriptions for some of the private property involved, such as “dilapidated” and “deteriorating.” Owners have found that objectionable.

The rationale for those properties being included in the plan emerged early on, when supporters cited a need to develop a strong “gateway” to downtown Mount Airy. The implication was that having unattractive sites might hamper development of property nearby — including the former Spencer’s holdings.

Cawley said he understands the opposition from the property owners, who based on Thursday night’s opposition among the board of commissioners might have their sites eventually removed from consideration. That’s because the commissioners will have the final say on the plan.

Yet harm might already be done, Cawley said, who explained that in the meantime, the people who own property in the area must live with the fact that others who aren’t elected (members of the redevelopment group) have deemed it blighted.

“While I am for redevelopment, I am not for the collateral damage,” Cawley said of that concern, which Thursday’s discussion indicated might lead to affected properties being acquired by the city because of the blighted label possibly driving away other suitors.

Commissioner Jim Armbrister agreed that a bad situation has resulted.

“It is private property — it is not city property that is being targeted for redevelopment,” said Armbrister, who believes its owners should decide how it is used and no one else.

“I am glad you brought this up,” he told Cawley in agreeing that the issue needed to be discussed, “because it has concerned me for some time.”

Armbrister said he supports the redevelopment process, but not some of the decisions that have been made along the way.

“I thought the intent was obvious at the time,” he said of when the municipality acquired the Spencer’s complex.

“And then I heard about additional properties (being included), and to me that was irrelevant to what I thought we were going to target.”

The board’s Dean Brown also said Thursday night that the redevelopment should include only the old Spencer’s property and not the expanded boundaries.

Commissioner Shirley Brinkley took the same position. “I don’t agree with the extended area,” she said.

Open-mindedness urged

Yokeley, who also serves as mayor pro tem in addition to chairing the redevelopment group, was the only commissioner who did not criticize the blighted-area plan as it now exists.

He asked his fellow board members Thursday, and concerned citizens, to have an open mind, pointing out that the redevelopment plan is still being prepared.

“We want everyone to benefit,” Yokeley said of the commission’s intent. He also said the concerns raised Thursday night by his fellow board members were more suited for a meeting of that group, which also is open to the public.

However, Yokeley’s call for open-mindedness brought an immediate counter from Cawley, who said being open-mindedness can go both ways.

Cawley charged that his fellow members of the redevelopment commission are the ones who haven’t been open-minded.

Despite property owners not wanting to be a part of the process, commission members are proceeding with it anyway, he said, implying that they have been oblivious to the wishes of those such as Velna Worth of Worth Honda. That is one of the businesses in the so-called blighted area.

“Mrs. Worth stood up and said, ‘I don’t want to be included,”’ Cawley recalled of what had transpired during a public meeting held early on in the process.

But, “she has been included the whole way through,” he continued.

“Let’s be open-minded to that as well.”

Cawley suggested that the situation has given city government a black eye.

“I hope people who feel betrayed by their city will find a way to trust us again.”

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

Commissioner Jon Cawley makes a point Thursday night while criticizing a plan for “blighted” property in Mount Airy. Jon Cawley makes a point Thursday night while criticizing a plan for “blighted” property in Mount Airy.

By Tom Joyce

[email protected]

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