City boards, MAD haveselves to blame for distrust

Recently members of the Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission, along with their apparent masters, Mount Airy Downtown Inc., made a bit of a hub-bub over a survey the commission apparently conducted a year ago.

The survey, they claim, shows that businesses within the area the commission has declared as “blighted” should be razed and replaced with what they consider more suitable operations. The “survey” they conducted, according to information from MAD Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison, was carried out in two ways: MAD representatives showed pictures of the properties to some people, and MAD officials stood on a street corner pointing to some of the properties with other respondents. In both cases, they asked those respondents to answer a series of questions regarding those properties.

Problem is, there’s little validity to this survey.

In a scientifically valid survey, respondents come from a cross section of a given society or group, so the overall respondent poll essentially mirrors a given community’s racial and socio-economic standing, rather than cherry-picking respondents based on likely responses.

A valid survey also poses questions in a neutral manner, not only in wording, but in body language, voice inflection, and other factors. This is hardly the case with the commission’s survey. One question reads “Do you believe the property on W. Pine Street shown in the photographs needs improvement?”

Well, doesn’t everything need improvement?

Another question: “Does the property on W. Pine Street shown in the photographs reflect negatively on Mount Airy as a whole?”

The question is written in a manner to suggest it is negative, in effect leading the respondent to that conclusion.

The survey went on to ask “What would you like to see instead of these buildings?”

The problem with this question is that is presumes something should be there other than the existing buildings, which in some cases represent viable, profitable businesses providing jobs for local residents. Again, the wording of this question truly undermines any validity the survey might have had.

Of course, the answers to this question all sounded nice: Welcome center, restaurants, hotel, shopping, art galleries and studios, convention center and concert hall, and so forth. We have no problem with those concepts, except they represent pie-in-the-sky responses given in a vacuum. Restaurant? Sure, that would be great, except we’ve had several restaurants close in recent months, which would seem to indicate perhaps the market is saturated. Hotels? Again, sounds great, but is there enough of a market to support one?

Perhaps most telling of all in this survey was the break-down of where respondents live. Apparently no one among the 78 surveyed even lived in Surry County or Mount Airy.

Most notably the property owners in the “blighted area” were not included, nor where they informed by the city or the redevelopment commission that their property was going to be hit with a designation of “blighted.” Some learned of it only after reading about it in The Mount Airy News.

That, it seems, is what we most find so appalling about this entire process, the absolute lack of respect shown by MAD, the redevelopment commission, and even some of the city commissioners, toward anyone who dares disagree with this process. From the city meeting with downtown business people in secret to form the redevelopment commission, to buying the former Spencer’s property in secret, and now lumping local properties into a redevelopment area and then calling the properties blighted without ever opening a dialogue with those property owners — all with the specter of the city being able to take some property by eminent domain if it so chooses — is the reason so many people are fearful and suspicious.

We keep hearing from MAD, the commission, and even the city board members that no one has anything to fear, that this will ultimately be good for all involved, that the fear people feel is something being inflamed by the media, or by area residents who simply aren’t progressive or smart enough to get with the program.

It seems that if the city had been open and transparent in all its dealings with city residents and business owners, and if those in private groups such as MAD would treat others with a little respect, most of the fear and distrust would never have materialized.

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