The clock is ticking on a project to redevelop the former Spencer’s industrial property in downtown Mount Airy, to the point that even a two-week delay could be problematic, city officials say.
The effort that began more than three years ago with the municipality’s purchase of the site is now facing a key deadline of late June 2018. Work must begin there by then on a planned hotel/banquet center and upscale apartment complex in order for the redevelopment to qualify for historic tax credits deemed vital for the project.
That pressure was evident last Thursday night when the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners approved a $288,900 contract for planning and design of infrastructure work that will pave the way for the hotel and apartments.
“We’re at a point now…of some urgency of moving along,” city Community Development Coordinator Martin Collins said in summing up the situation during Thursday’s meeting.
“There is a need to make a decision on the contract,” Collins added of the matter at hand involving the preliminary infrastructure improvements and a need for expediency.
“Even the loss of a few weeks could cause problems for this project.” Collins said that in addition to beating the June deadline, some steps in the process must be taken by the end of this year.
The commissioners subsequently voted to award the planning and design services contract to The Lane Group, a private engineering firm in Virginia, but not everyone was on board with that. This included Commissioner Jim Armbrister, the dissenter in the 4-1 decision, and two citizens who had addressed the contract issue during a public forum earlier in the meeting.
Paul Eich, one of those citizens, questioned the “rush” to OK the contract for The Lane Group, since the city government does not have final commitments from the two developers for the hotel and apartments. They include Brookstown Hospitality in Winston-Salem and Belmont Sayre of Durham.
Eich said the developers don’t seem to be rushing.
John Pritchard, another who spoke, charged that by awarding the $288,900 contract, Mount Airy officials would be breaking an earlier promise. It was to not make such a financial outlay until the developers had invested their money — “if they ever decide to commit,” Pritchard said.
Both he and Eich said approving the design contract in the absence of this is a case of putting the cart before the horse.
Their skepticism was mirrored later in the meeting by Commissioner Armbrister when officials discussed the matter leading to a vote.
Armbrister said he had made a vow with himself not to approve any further action regarding the Spencer’s project until after a Dec. 21 public hearing is held on proposed agreements with the private developers.
While Armbrister subsequently voted “no,” Collins and others defended the need for moving ahead with approving the design pact which convinced the rest of the commissioners.
The developers ultimately will be “making a commitment,” Collins said. “And the city must demonstrate good faith that it will build the infrastructure.”
Work ahead will involve regrading areas around the old Spencer’s buildings and the reconstruction of parking space; improvements to adjoining streets and sidewalks along Franklin, Willow, West Oak and Virginia streets; and the replacement of water/sewer and storm drainage facilities.
“There are a number of things that need to be completed between now and the time construction begins,” said Kevin Heath, vice president/project manager of The Lane Group. Included are field surveying, site-development plans, water and sewer improvement plans and additional services.
“If you approve this tonight, the first thing we’re going to do is start work on our surveying,” Heath said at Thursday night’s meeting.
City Manager Barbara Jones also urged quick action on the contract.
“We’re trying to meet a timeline,” Jones said, “for the construction to happen, in order for the developers to meet the tax credit deadline as well.”
Historic tax credits are a form of financing that aids redevelopment projects while preserving the architecture of former textile mills.
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley swung her support to the contract approval after asking a question centered on Armbrister’s request for delaying the vote until after the Dec. 21 public hearing. “So two weeks could be very costly to the city?” Brinkley said.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell said that cost likely would have a greater impact than just the 14 days of lost time.
“My hope would be that Kevin (Heath, The Lane Group representative) could leave here tonight and start work,” Campbell said.
Commissioner Armbrister, though voting in opposition to the contracting action, said he could not disagree with points made and that his position shouldn’t be viewed as disrespectful to the situation.
However, the dissenting board member said he wished information had come forward sooner to avoid rushing the contract decision.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.