Time to show progress on Spencer’s or move on

“Fish or cut bait.”

It’s an old saying, whose original meaning was to divide tasks in a fishing operation, between cutting up the bait that would be used for fishing, or being the person doing the fishing.

Over time that saying has come to mean make a decision; take action or move on.

It’s this latter definition that we think applies to the Spencer’s project in downtown Mount Airy. It’s time for the city commissioners to show some concrete action, something definitive, or find some way to divest itself of the property.

We don’t say this lightly, but the city purchased the property three years and seven months ago. The city spent nearly $100,000 of taxpayer money to buy the facility and land, has spent tens of thousands on clean-up and study, is now forking over hundreds of thousands to a consultant who hasn’t yet shown any concrete progress on developing the property.

City leaders tell us local taxpayers could yet be on the hook for millions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades and additional development costs, always justifying the expense by saying eventually, some day, the city might recoup that money through tax revenue.

Along the way, the disastrous attempt at putting a redevelopment commission in charge of the project — and in charge of redeveloping much of the downtown area as part of the effort — resulted in splitting city leaders and businesses, giving birth to the bitterest, most divisive election this city has seen in decades.

Has this project been worth it? Will it be worth the additional cost of millions more local dollars?

Yes, there have been at least three private developers who say they may be interested in the project, as long as they can get local money and some historic tax credits to fund a large chunk of their development costs, yet there have been few specific details about the development. The most we generally hear is that the developers want to build some sort of hotel and banquet center, along with an upscale apartment complex.

One of those developers, local businessman and president of Fabrica Development Inc. Tom Webb, did ask city council to expand the permissible use of one of the buildings to include what that company called “advanced” textile manufacturing.

We don’t know if Fabrica’s leadership determined the other uses weren’t likely to be feasible, but it certainly is telling that the company was shifting gears and wanting to move back to a manufacturing use for part of the property.

Unfortunately, when city commissioners felt they should consult with the other developers, as well as let the public have a say in the request, Webb and Fabrica pulled out of the project.

That the Spencer’s project would be faltering at this time is no surprise.

Many will recall that in 2014 city leaders negotiated and planned this project over several months — in secret meetings behind closed doors — then used a private citizen to surreptitiously bid on on their behalf when the property was auctioned off.

Then came the redevelopment commission controversy, the money that’s been spent, consultants that seem to keep coming back for more money, years of talking about historic tax credits and now, suddenly, being told the city has to act immediately or lose those, and the list could go on.

We have to ask, does the city have any true leadership on this project?

While we were strong in our opposition to the city’s unethical and, we believe, illegal moves to buy the land, and opposed to the formation of the redevelopment commission, we have been largely silent on the issue over the past year or so.

We hoped that, despite the dubious beginnings of the project, it could still pay off for city residents with increased jobs that pay relatively well, in higher tax values the city could use to recoup its investment of taxpayer money, and that it could be part of the ongoing revitalization and growth of downtown.

We still hope those come true. This is one subject we want to be wrong about. If this project does come to fruition, if we see building and renovating going on in a year, businesses opening there in two years, we will be the first in line to congratulate the commissioners on the board, as well as those who started this project, on their foresight and vision. We would gladly admit to being wrong, happily eat a little crow over our opposition.

But after 43 months and counting, with little more than the same vague promises that something might happen somewhere down the road, with more and more going money going out and little tangible progress to show for it, we are becoming increasingly skeptical the city can pull this off.

So, it’s time to fish or cut bait. City leaders should show concrete, visible progress soon or find a way to unload this property before sinking more taxpayer money into it.

It is time to fish or cut bait.

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