RDC proposal worth further study

But it should not be allowed to distract from Spencer’s work

The Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission unveiled a new strategy last week, one aimed at trying to gain traction for its expansive downtown redevelopment plan.

That wider plan goes beyond what city commissioners have said repeatedly they wanted — their desire was to have the Redevelopment Commission put together a plan for the revitalization of the former Spencer’s Property, while the redevelopment group wants to corral nearly two dozen additional properties, some of which are ongoing, thriving businesses, in an area it says needs public oversight and control for redevelopment.

To this point the Redevelopment Commission, or RDC, has done little along the way to engender much in the way of public trust, or to gain support from the property owners involved, with its goals seemingly at odds with the city commission that created and appointed the RDC.

So the group has shifted tactics, trying to garner support by offering grants to affected property owners, the chance to get up to 50 percent of the cost for certain redevelopment and upgrade work paid with public money — and even offering a full 100 percent payment for razing properties in the expanded redevelopment zone.

The members of the RDC have taken it a step further, saying it plans to meet with the affected property owners, to fully explain what is going on and what the new program may mean for them.

We have some serious reservations about the plan, but to give credit where credit is due, this is the first progressive, construction step we’ve seen the RDC make, and it does have some merit.

First, we like the idea the RDC members will be meeting with individual property owners. That is a move long overdue, and this will be a chance for the people most affected by the plan, those whose property has been targeted by the RDC, to not only have their say, but to ask straight-forward, pointed questions and hopefully get an equally straight-forward, honest answer.

Second, the idea that these owners could get assistance through grants to help them pay for upgrades and major improvements that could truly make a significant difference downtown is definitely an exciting prospect. Of particular note is the plan to offer 100 percent cost for razing old, dilapidated structures, which removes the major obstacle a few key property owners might have in rejecting the plan.

However, there are still some significant reservations.

Chief on that list is the source of this grant money — at present, the RDC has but one proposed source of that money, the taxpayers of Mount Airy. RDC officials say there may be state and federal grants available for this sort of project, but the bottom line is that, at this moment, the only money available would come from the city budget.

A companion concern is there seems to be no definitive cap on how much that might cost the city. RDC officials said it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $600,000, yet we suspect that’s at best a guess. We haven’t seen any comprehensive studies or surveys of the area that support this figure, and if the city gets into the cost of razing a structure or two, that $600,000 could easily become $800,00, $1 million, or more.

Thanks to some suspect budgeting by city officials over the years, Mount Airy does have a significant year-end fund left in its budget every year, so the truth is that the money is there — even if the ultimate cost is $1 million, the city could take that out of the annual city surplus and the taxpayers might never be directly affected.

Of course, offering, say, a $30,000 50-percent grant to a property owner means that owner still has to come up with another 30 grand to do the work, which may not be an easy, or business savvy, move. Money doesn’t grow on trees for private businesses, and such a program might be great on paper but not work in the real world of small business finances.

But, no one will know without meeting with the business owners, as the RDC says it plans to do.

There’s still too much up in the air about the proposal to know if it’s a practical idea or not, but we do believe it’s definitely worth exploring.

However, it’s vital everyone involved keep their eye on the ball for what is most important at present, and that is moving forward immediately with the Spencer’s revitalization. The RDC’s new proposal shouldn’t be allowed to be a distraction for the Spencer’s redevelopment. All efforts at securing grant and loan money, and putting together potential redevelopment plans, should focus on that for now. Otherwise, the city could miss key opportunities for some federal and state programs that may help pay for that effort.

But it should not be allowed to distract from Spencer’s work
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