Concerns about Mayberry Mall’s outside appearance have prompted Mount Airy officials to spring into action, as a fall festival looms which is the area’s biggest event of the year.
Council members voted 3-2 Thursday afternoon to have city grounds/maintenance personnel conduct operations including mowing and weed trimming to spruce up the mall grounds before the 52nd-Annual Autumn Leaves Festival begins next Friday.
The average citizen might wonder why public workers will be engaged in such a mission on private property, which is just the latest chapter in efforts to upgrade the 50-year-old shopping center recently on the decline.
Structural problems at the mall on U.S. 52-North have been under the official scrutiny of both the Mount Airy and Surry County governments for more than a year. Meanwhile, a South Carolina firm has been in purchase negotiations with the New York owner of the mall, Mike Kohan, who has been blamed for the conditions.
Apart from inside deficiencies posing safety hazards, the outside appearance of the facility has become a growing concern along with grass, weeds and shrubbery on the grounds.
A complaint recently was made, believed to have come from a citizen to the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners and then channeled through City Hall to the Police Department that is handling such issues.
Under municipal procedures, a complaint about a site leads to an inspection by city personnel for possible nuisance violations. If that is determined, the policy calls for a violation notice to be sent to the owner via certified mail giving that party 15 days to correct the situation.
When this doesn’t happen, which was the case with Kohan, city crews receive a notice to abate the problem and the owner is charged for that.
“It is the largest abatement notice we have ever received,” city Parks and Recreation Director Darren Lewis said of the situation at the mall during Thursday afternoon’s discussion. Grounds/maintenance operations are handled through his department.
If the cost of the work exceeds $500, Mount Airy files a lien on the property, City Attorney Hugh Campbell told board members. This means that if it is sold — which is pending with the mall — the money must be paid before the property can change hands.
Commissioner Jon Cawley said the present condition of the mall would reflect badly on the city to the thousands of visitors coming next week.
Board members mixed
The potential ownership change and the handling of the lien was a dividing issue among the commissioners, who also had to decide on the scope of pre-festival work to be undertaken.
Along with the seemingly unchecked vegetation encroaching along the roadside and mall parking areas, vines are growing on the building and there are piles of insulation and other materials behind the center, based on the discussion.
There was uncertainty Thursday about whether city crews could fully abate all this before the festival.
“That will be a major challenge,” Lewis said, “for the grounds-maintenance crew to complete that by next Friday.” The job would easy exceed the $500 threshold, according to Lewis.
After discussing an alternative that would focus just on roadside areas in front of Mayberry Mall, the commissioners eventually settled on anything “visible from U.S. 52.”
Lewis said this lessened scope will allow crews to meet the board’s objective of improving the site by the festival’s beginning.
“We’re going to start on that next week,” he said Friday.
“We will certainly work to get it presentable,” City Manager Barbara Jones assured the commissioners.
Police Chief Dale Watson reported that officials of a Belk store that is a freestanding and separately owned part of the mall also will be cleaning up their space outside.
Another consideration for not launching a total abatement effort around other parts of the building was voiced by Commissioner Dean Brown.
“The new owner could come in and bulldoze all that up, and we’ve spent money for nothing,” Brown said.
Timing of billing
The issue of how to recoup the expense of the work from the mall ownership was a sticky issue among the commissioners, which spawned the 3-2 decision.
Commissioner Cawley made the motion for the city government to simply do the job and then send the owner a bill.
The board’s Shirley Brinkley and Steve Yokeley voted against the cleanup plan after concerns were expressed about when the mall might actually change hands and how that is timed with the process to obtain payment.
The purchase of the mall by WRS Inc., a real estate firm in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina — of which T. Scott Smith is president and CEO — is said to be nearing completion.
Based on Thursday afternoon’s discussion, the deal could be closed any day now — but the question is precisely when.
“I’m sorry, I don’t have any updates about timing,” said the city attorney, who has been monitoring the situation — but is not privy to the most recent negotiations between WRS and Kohan.
“I think we ought to wait for the new owner,” Brinkley said.
Concern was expressed about completing the work just as Smith and WRS Inc. took over and “sticking” the incoming ownership with an unexpected bill.
If Smith does indeed acquire the facility, this would not be a good welcoming gesture, city officials indicated.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.