Efforts to redevelop an old textile mill complex in Mount Airy, which have produced their share of ups and downs since the city government acquired the former Spencer’s property in 2014, might have finally achieved lasting success.
At least that was the tone of a Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting Thursday night, featuring a public hearing regarding plans for a hotel and market center on parcels at the sprawling downtown site where infant-apparel manufacturing ceased in 2007.
This was evidenced by every citizen who spoke applauding the endeavor that will require local taxpayer funding for infrastructure of about $3 million, which included hailing it as potentially the largest-ever economic development project undertaken in Surry County.
It also was embraced later at Thursday night’s meeting by Commissioner Jon Cawley, who has not been supportive of some council decisions concerning the Spencer’s redevelopment.
“The (present) Spencer’s project is very exciting to me and we have been through a lot of storms to get to this point,” said Cawley, apparently referring to previous debacles including failed plans to establish a Barter Theatre and hotel there.
Attempts to repurpose the old textile mill property to preserve its architecture for new uses also have divided the community at times as well as proved costly to the municipality. One observer in 2018 put those city funding costs at $7 million-plus, which have been in a kind of lull since — including slowdowns apparently prompted by the pandemic.
“And to me it looks like the clouds have passed,” Cawley continued, while still leaving room for unforeseen turbulence: “There may be another storm to come up afterwards — maybe a clearing-off shower of some kind.”
But he is happy about where things stand now.
“All that we have been through is worth it to be to this point,” Cawley said of a proposal by Sunhouse Hospitality, LLC, of Cary, for which a potential redevelopment agreement was the subject of the hearing.
Sunhouse seeks to establish a boutique hotel with 70 to 80 rooms in the large Sparger Building fronting Willow Street, operating under a national brand, and a convention-type market center including meeting space in a dye house portion of the Cube Building nearby.
The Cary entity, which has an option to buy the former Spencer’s sites for $350,000, plans to invest at least $10 million — aided by historic tax credits to reinvigorate old textile mill sites.
The city and county governments would share the infrastructure costs of about $2.9 million under the public-private partnership. Around $1.63 million of this is planned for parking spaces at the project site, with a public park also to be provided there by the municipality.
Sticky issues that have managed to come to the forefront despite the apparent momentum of the project at hand (which some longtime observers might say is business as usual for the Spencer’s redevelopment) were addressed Thursday night.
One includes the presence of asbestos in the structures involved, which was highlighted by Bryan Grote, a local financial expert who is assisting with the redevelopment on a volunteer basis as a member of the group Mount Airy Downtown Inc.
“This is a new item that has cropped up since the option agreement,” Grote said of the purchase pact approved in March.
“It basically must come out before other work can take place inside,” he said of the asbestos detected in certain areas of the property. “None of that early work can continue.”
“The removal of asbestos in a timely manner is critical to the project development,” stresses the proposed agreement between the city and Sunhouse which will be voted on at another meeting soon.
That will cost an estimated $55,000, $5,000 covering the Cube Building, for which the city will be totally responsible, with the two parties agreeing to share asbestos-related expenses elsewhere including the Sparger Building.
Grote also addressed another aspect calling for a parking lot to be developed and owned by the city, which would lease it to the hotel developer for six years, then convey the lot to the developer provided certain conditions are fulfilled.
This includes the expectation that Sunhouse will pay a total of $1.6 million in local property taxes over that time — termed a “minimum required capital investment.” If levies fall short of that, Sunhouse would make a payment in lieu of taxes or the parking lot lease could be extended.
The developer is to have exclusive use of at least 100 spaces for the hotel, with a maximum of 30 spaces to be available for public parking.
Grote is enthused about the situation overall.
“If developed as proposed, this project will be a major economic driver for the city and county,” he said.
Hearing speakers support
No one spoke in opposition to the redevelopment agreement during the public hearing.
“This type of project doesn’t come along every day,” said one speaker, Randy Collins, the president and CEO of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce.
Collins said the hotel/market center would be “a great addition to downtown Mount Airy and the entire region.”
He said meeting space is much needed in town, particularly for larger gatherings.
Also expressing support was Carolyn Choate, the manager of Spencer’s Mill Apartments located beside the Sparger Building. The reaction to those market-rate units has been a redevelopment success story at the site, which Choate implied might also greet the hotel/market center.
“This place is alive,” she said of Spencer’s Mill Apartments. “It was an old building someone took a chance on — it not only is alive, it is vibrant.”
This includes a 35-applicant waiting list for the apartments.
“I’m all in favor of this hotel — it’s time we did it,” Choate added.
Hearing speaker Joseph Zalescik, a local businessman, offered similar comments.
Zalescik believes the project will be good for Mount Airy in the long run and pointed out that the municipality has the option to buy back the property if it fails — “which hopefully it will not.”
Larry Johnson, a member of the Surry County Board of Commissioners who represents Mount Airy, also commented Thursday night on the significance of the hotel project for the area as a whole and reiterated his board’s support.
“It’s good to have the county partner with us to see that this goes through,” responded Marie Wood, a city commissioner.
“I think things will be getting a lot better,” fellow council member Tom Koch said of the Spencer’s redevelopment.