Citing concerns about escalating expenses, the majority of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted Thursday night not to spend $13,000 on lights for a downtown spot known as the Whittling Wall.
“It’s like every time we talk about something, it’s going to cost one thing and it ends up costing us a good deal more,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said of how various municipal projects tend to go over budget.
That is the case for the Whittling Wall, located on the corner of West Oak and North Main streets, where men long ago would congregate to chew tobacco, trade stories and, as its name suggests, break out their pocketknives. The flesh-and-blood whittlers have now been replaced by eight brick sculptures of key figures in Mount Airy history, celebrating its musical and other legacies.
The statues and accompanying construction work at the site initially were intended to be fully funded by a $94,340 downtown-revitalization grant awarded to the municipality from the N.C. Department of Commerce in 2016.
However, the cost earlier exceeded that figure by $10,582, which the city government avoided when an anonymous donor came forward to make up the shortfall.
And on Thursday night, the commissioners were faced with another unplanned expense: $13,000 for three decorative lights for the Whittling Wall proposed to be supplied, and later maintained, by Duke Energy.
But they voted 3-2 not to approve that expense, with Commissioners Jim Armbrister and Shirley Brinkley joining with Cawley in opposing the move backed by the board’s Dean Brown and Steve Yokeley.
“Was this $13,000 for lighting part of our original expectation for the Whittling Wall?” Cawley asked rhetorically, basically answering his own question with an unspoken but clearly evident “no.”
“I guess I wonder how long this is going to go on,” Cawley quickly added of the escalating costs. He said it seems as if the city board is just supposed to fall in line when such overruns occur, and ante up extra sums needed.
That has been the case with other recent city projects, including a revitalization effort approved last year for Market Street, which is near the Whittling Wall.
“But I want to say for the record that Mount Airy is bigger than Main Street,” Cawley commented Thursday night in reference to how elected officials also must weigh needs elsewhere in town.
Light expense defended
City Manager Barbara Jones explained to the commissioners Thursday night that multiple lighting options were considered for the Whittling Wall, including less-expensive recessed sidewalk lights. Those typically are installed in walkways and shine up at an angle to illuminate fixtures such as flagpoles and statues.
However, Jones said that option was rejected because of various concerns, including people walking on the lights.
It also was thought that the statues would not be properly lit with the ground-level variety, with Jones saying that one goal is to provide sufficient illumination for surveillance cameras at the site in order to deter vandalism.
“Is this something the downtown merchants would be willing to pay for?” Commissioner Brinkley asked regarding the $13,000 expense.
“They didn’t ask,” Jones responded concerning the decorative overhead lighting, saying it was an idea she had suggested. “This is the final thing that we came up with,” the city manager said of personnel who studied the issue.
But both Brinkley and Armbrister said they thought the expenditure should be considered at a later time as part of overall budget discussions by officials. And Brinkley also questioned whether a lower price could be found for the type of lighting desired.
She further asked if some temporary solution might be undertaken until the budget issues are resolved.
Commissioner Yokeley then questioned the practicality of having no lighting for the Whittling Wall, although Public Works Director Jeff Boyles advised that some is provided by regular streetlights.
Yokeley said Thursday night that he thinks it is “silly” not to provide the lighting proposed by city staff members. “It’s over a $100,000 investment,” he said of the need to provide protection for the Whittling Wall — where two statues reportedly have been vandalized since being installed.
Commissioner Armbrister, a retired police officer, said lighting can reduce the potential for vandalism, but will not prevent it altogether.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.