A common observation around Mount Airy is that no outward progress is occurring with the redevelopment of the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown, despite much planning and spending — but there are signs this could be changing.
“We need to get on with it,” Doug Carter, new financial adviser for the city government, said Thursday night during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners when he appeared to add a spark to the languishing project.
Carter was speaking in reference to an amended development agreement with an entity known as Spencer’s Mill Ventures, LLC. It is seeking to build an upscale apartment complex of at least 65 units on a portion of the Spencer’s land owned by the city government, known as “Lot 2,” which the firm bought in December for $36,000.
The plans called for the construction to begin by late June, and later it was revealed that ground would instead be broken by Labor Day. The latest word is that the work won’t begin then, either, with a new deadline now set for construction to start no later than Oct. 31, based on the amended agreement approved by the commissioners last week.
The tone of Carter’s presentation indicated that this date is for real, with the adviser explaining that the updated pact also requires the developer to finalize financing for the project by Sept. 30.
The financial adviser pointed to the need by Spencer’s Mill Ventures to supply the “deliverables” it promised when acquiring the city-owned land for a project to be aided by governmental tax credits: a $12.5 million apartment project.
“At some point in time, you’ve got to deliver them and they believe they can deliver them by Sept. 30,” Carter said of the financing part of the equation, and the actual work a month later.
A failure by the developer to secure financing for the apartment project led to the delay of construction from the original June date, according to city documents, which also state that engineering and architectural work, and inside demolition, has begun.
Carter said there is a critical time factor involved with launching construction due to tax credit end dates. “We need to get this done by the dates” specified.
“I think this group wants things to happen,” the financial adviser told municipal officials, saying he believes Spencer’s Mill Ventures also understands the rapid need for construction to begin. “I believe they want this to happen.”
He indicated that the dates in the updated agreement are aimed at ensuring this.
The amended timetable also includes an “unwind” provision the city government can exercise to take back the land sold to the developer, if Spencer’s Mill Ventures fails to come through.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell pointed out the new dates will be timed with infrastructure work to be done by the municipality at the Spencer’s site to aid the redevelopment, including building a parking lot for the apartments. It is to begin on Nov. 15.
The amended timelines relate only to the apartment component of the Spencer’s redevelopment, and not a four-star hotel and banquet center also planned there.
City officials react
The commissioners seemed happy with the update provided by Carter, as evidenced by the 5-0 vote approving the amended schedule and unwind agreement, and the progress at the Spencer’s property it is signaling.
“This is what we’ve been asking for to get shovels in the earth,” Commissioner Jim Armbrister said. “This is one of the goals we’ve had to get this ball rolling, and now we’ve got some good timelines.”
An official of a new watchdog group also said he was impressed with what Carter is bringing to the table.
Gene Clark, the treasurer of Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy, earlier had criticized an April 19 decision by city leaders to provide $100,000 for the financial adviser services related to the Spencer’s redevelopment.
Commissioner Jon Cawley said he thought all the dates and requirements had been finalized long ago. “We had some benchmarks and some of them were not met.”
In related action Thursday night, the commissioners voted to extend a lease agreement with Spencer’s Mill Ventures until Dec. 31, which reflects the changed timelines for the apartment development. This also includes the municipality continuing to maintain insurance on the Lot 2 building.
Although the property was bought by Spencer’s Mill Ventures, the city government has provided insurance due to having a leasehold interest in the site as the tenant. This coverage has been provided through a “master insurance” plan and no one, including City Manager Barbara Jones, could supply the expense for Lot 2.
Campbell, the city attorney, said the developer would obtain insurance once construction financing is secured and work begins.
While the commissioners generally were supportive of amending the lease terms, Commissioner Cawley objected to paying for insurance instead of Spencer’s Mill Ventures through its ownership role.
If the city owned something, it would supply coverage and so should the developer, he reasoned, especially with discussion indicating that the apartment complex will be getting a free parking lot out of the deal. “It’s frustrating.”
Cawley suggested that city officials are too accommodating in such situations.
“Every time somebody asks us to do something, we say ‘sure, happy to,”’ he said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.