After rejecting funding in March for illuminating a set of statues in downtown Mount Airy to help secure the site, city officials are now seeing that project in a different light.
It involves a solution recently emerging which will provide two-thirds of the lighting originally sought for the Whittling Wall near the corner of North Main and West Oak streets — without costing city government anything.
This plan came to light as municipal personnel were studying another project nearby involving a refurbishing of Market Street, which runs parallel to North Main. It calls for decorative lights being placed by Duke Energy along Market Street, an area that has seen vibrant business growth recently, including a craft brewery.
It was noticed that one of the light fixtures in the Duke Energy layout appeared to be redundant, or not needed, according to city Public Works Director Jeff Boyles.
Then a bulb went on that perhaps this extra light, confirmed as optional by a Duke engineer, could be moved up the hill along West Oak Street to help light the lower section of the Whittling Wall. It contains eight brick sculptures of musical and other figures who have helped shape local history — positioned at a spot where men once gathered to whittle and chew tobacco.
Boyles added that a decorative lighting contract with Duke Energy already had been signed for Market Street and the lights ordered, with the company on standby to install those fixtures. The city will work with the utility company in including the decorative lighting for the Whittling Wall as part of sidewalk reconstruction and widening there.
As part of this idea, Mount Airy Downtown Inc., an organization that oversees improvements in the central business district using funds from a special tax, agreed to fund another decorative light for the Whittling Wall, pending formal approval by its officials.
This means two lights will now be located there, compared to three that were proposed to be installed at a cost of $13,000 from city government coffers which the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners denied in a 3-2 vote in March.
The board approved the new plan 5-0 at its last meeting on May 3, which Boyles and City Manager Barbara Jones said will bring multiple benefits.
“It could sort of give continuity to the lights that are further down the hill at Market Street,” the public works director said.
Jones said the lighting to be provided also will enhance security and safety at the Whittling Wall.
“We have had some damage already to some of the sculptures,” the city manager said.
“I know we can’t totally prevent that,” Jones mentioned, but at least the lighting will be a deterrent.
Based on the May 3 discussion, the lights could be installed this week. Duke Energy is scheduled to work on the Market Street portion then and “they want to do it all at once while they’re here,” Boyles said
The statues and accompanying construction work along the Whittling Wall 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 actual cost exceeded that figure by $10,582, which the city government avoided when an anonymous donor came forward to make up the shortfall. Later, in June of last year, the commissioners set aside another $8,400 for a late addition to the statue lineup to include the likeness of a prominent member of the African-American community, late educator L.H. Jones.
Yet this was described as basically an insurance measure since members of that community wanted to meet the expense of the Jones sculpture through their own fundraising efforts.
A general concern about cost overruns fueled the vote in March to deny city funding for the Whittling Wall lighting.
While the sculptures arrived months ago with other site work to be done and still continuing, including the sidewalk upgrade, the Whittling Wall effort has attracted much positive attention, according to Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison of Mount Airy Downtown.
“It’s been a real source of pride to see that project even without the sidewalk,” Morrison said at the May 3 meeting when expressing support for the lighting alternative.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.