Project manager sought for Spencer’s

By Tom Joyce -

Now that Mount Airy officials have approved proceeding with a plan for redeveloping former industrial property downtown, including a Barter Theatre expansion, the real work is set to begin — which is requiring a project manager.

The need for such an individual was made clear Thursday night when the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 to move ahead with a conceptual proposal for transforming the old Spencer’s apparel-manufacturing site, subject to a detailed final agreement.

This resulted from studies by an ad hoc team, with recent input from a new group, Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy, leading to a plan putting the bulk of funding for the redevelopment, including the theater, on the backs of private business. This includes Dana Bryson and Gray Angell, who are building a 90-room four-star hotel on the former Spencer’s site.

Earlier concepts subjected the municipality, the owner of the property, to greater financial risks — which divided the community and also were disapproved by the North Carolina Local Government Commission.

But even with the funding burden shifted, the city government will need an independent party to look out for its interests under a defined action plan, according to Gene Rees, a local businessman serving on the ad hoc team.

While Rees suggested that this could be an individual or group, the consensus among Mount Airy officials in discussing that recommendation indicated that a person would be tapped.

Commissioner Jon Cawley agreed with the idea of having someone to work on the city’s behalf in the Spencer’s redevelopment. That person should be engaged “in the very near future,” Cawley said.

“I’m talking about a negotiator,” he added. “And I think that person needs to be available immediately.”

The discussion indicated that this person would report regularly to the city council on the project — in public, in response to recent criticisms about Barter-related discussions occurring in closed sessions.

Officials dabbled with the idea of having a willing volunteer handle the project manager tasks, yet seemed to settle on this role requiring more than that and agreeing the person appointed should be considered carefully.

“I think we need to have a pretty detailed job description before we get somebody,” Mayor David Rowe said. “I think from what I’ve seen, it will be a great deal of work.”

Commissioner Steve Yokeley said he hopes a job description can be prepared by the board’s next scheduled meeting on Aug. 16.

It also was mentioned during Thursday’s meeting that Doug Carter, who recently was hired by Mount Airy as a financial adviser to assist with efforts including the Spencer’s redevelopment, also might help in acquiring the project manager.

In the meantime, City Attorney Hugh Campbell will fill that role, a decision reached at the urging of Bryson, one of the hotel developers.

Bryson explained that the municipality needed to have a go-to person the very next morning to be able to answer questions to allow preliminary steps to be taken regarding the redevelopment. She lobbied for Campbell’s involvement since he could readily address any legalities arising.

Cost a question mark

No expense has been mentioned for the project manager, with the job description still to be defined.

This person would join a growing crew of outsourced professionals Mount Airy officials have enlisted to assist with various aspects of the Spencer’s redevelopment:

• In April 2016, they contracted with Charlotte lawyer DeWitt F. “Mac” McCarley, a recognized expert in the redevelopment field, to guide them through the Spencer’s project.

It originally was estimated that the services provided by McCarley would have a total cost of $37,500, based on an hourly rate of $375 and 100 hours of work estimated to be required for various redevelopment tasks.

But on July 20, after Mount Airy cut ties with McCarley in April, City Manager Barbara Jones advised that $277,274 had been paid to Parker Poe, his law firm. Commissioner Jim Armbrister said at that time this figure might not include services provided by other members of the firm which had not been billed.

In McCarley’s defense, the mayor has said the attorney was asked to perform extra tasks not anticipated originally.

• On April 19, the commissioners approved paying $100,000 for the financial adviser, stating that his duties would include assisting with funding for the Barter Theatre expansion and other services related to the Spencer’s project.

• In a separate action on April 19, the commissioners also agreed to pay $5,000 for a new attorney, Bob Jessup of the Sanford Holshauser firm in Raleigh. Jessup’s services were sought to represent Mount Airy in a return visit to the Local Government Commission that rejected the Barter plan in March, since he has experience working with that agency. The financial and legal services plans were each approved in 3-2 votes.

• On May 3, the city board voted 5-0 in favor of a contract with Holloway Group Inc., a lobbying firm headed by a former member of the N.C. General Assembly, at a cost of $1,000 per month. Bryan Holloway was tasked to assist city officials with acquiring funds for various projects.

A month later, Holloway announced that he had engineered a $1 million allocation to Mount Airy from the state Legislature for infrastructure needs related to water and sewer utilities. The commissioners subsequently voted to use the funds for water-sewer needs citywide and not for the Spencer’s redevelopment project.

By Tom Joyce

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.