The redevelopment of the former Spencer’s Inc. industrial property has been selected as the top goal of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
That priority emerged from an annual planning retreat that concluded Thursday, in which city officials met over three days to discuss various municipal operations and climaxed this by identifying their chief concerns going forward.
In past years, cutting property taxes has been at the top of the list. But finding new uses for the now-dormant Spencer’s site, which the city bought in 2014, has supplanted the taxation issue — although it still ranks high among the top 10 goals, coming in at No. 3.
Revitalizing the Spencer’s property in downtown Mount Airy not only was picked No. 1, but four other projects directly related to it also made the top 10 (which included 12 goals in all due to three tying for the No. 10 spot).
Those priorities resulted from the five city commissioners and Mayor David Rowe being asked this question: “What are the most important issues/needs/opportunities facing the city of Mount Airy over the next three to five years?”
The evaluation process was guided by David Long, a professional facilitator from Greensboro, who first had city officials brainstorm on every possible goal they could think of, which resulted in a list totaling 38.
Long then instructed them, on an individual basis, to assign points for their highest and lowest priorities on index cards, with nine points being the highest number given to any single goal. When all the numbers were tallied, this system was designed to determine officials’ consensus on various projects.
Three of the six council members chose the Spencer’s redevelopment as their top goal by assigning it nine points, while a fourth gave it eight, leading to that finishing in the No. 1 slot.
City officials’ next priorities, in order, are:
2. The development of Market Street, which is near the Spencer’s property. The council agreed Friday that improvements to Market Street would not normally have such a high priority, but the proximity to Spencer’s elevates its importance. “I see that as a blend with Spencer’s,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said.
3. Maintain or lower the tax rate, while reviewing city revenue sources as a whole and its income/outflow.
4. Personnel needs (referring to research showing that city employees are paid less than in other municipalities similar in size to Mount Airy).
5. Economic development and jobs.
6. Rehabilitation of older water and sewer lines (including those in the Spencer’s area, where some of the greatest utility infrastructure needs in town exist. Officials are seeking federal Community Development Block Grant funds for that purpose).
7. Market Mount Airy’s quality water surplus (with city water production now operating at 20 percent of its total capacity) and trying to sell more water to outside users.
8. Deciding on a budget (including which major projects to fund).
9. The Westside redevelopment (which encompasses the Spencer’s site).
10. A tie among three goals: unity among city elected officials; contracting with developers (which also involves Spencer’s, with two prospects now considering a four-star hotel/banquet center and an upscale apartment complex on property there); and applying for the All-America City Award, which Mount Airy won previously, in 1994.
Spencer’s rocky start
When discussing their goals on Thursday when the planning retreat wrapped up in a conference room of the Municipal Building, city council members said the Spencer’s project is on track — including progress continuing to be made with the prospective hotel and apartment developers.
However, that effort has enjoyed limited success up to now, starting with the formation of a seven-member redevelopment commission in 2014 to spearhead the revitalization of the buildings formerly used for manufacturing infant apparel.
The group created controversy by staunchly supporting a redevelopment plan that extended beyond the Spencer’s complex to include private commercial property, and several thriving businesses, which were declared part of a blighted area.
There were fears that property owners might be forced to give up their holdings through eminent domain because of their involuntary inclusion in the plan and efforts to create a “gateway” to the downtown area which would have required attaining privately owned land.
The majority of the commissioners opposed incorporating the private sites into the plan.
After pro-redevelopment commission candidates failed to take control of the city government by challenging incumbents during November’s municipal election, the city council voted 4-1 to disband the commission they had created in 2014.
Then the Mount Airy Planning Board approved new boundary lines for the Westside redevelopment area that removed the private property, numbering some 20 sites altogether.
That has left the redevelopment task up to the council and other city officials to accomplish. Mayor Rowe, City Attorney Hugh Campbell and City Manager Barbara Jones recently have been dealing with the two developers who have plans on the table.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.