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City has year of highs and lows

It’s been a year of highs and lows for the Mount Airy area, with 2019 serving up both success and adversity, but setting an optimistic stage for progress as December winds down.

On the positive side during the year were events such as the purchase of Mayberry Mall by a South Carolina firm. The longtime local shopping center had been threatened with closure due to structural deficiencies, but the new owner has promised repairs to return Mayberry Mall to its former glory.

Also, further steps were taken toward the ongoing redevelopment of the former Spencer’s textile mill property in downtown Mount Airy, which is now owned by the city government.

But on the other end of the spectrum, the closing of another longtime local industry — Hanesbrands Inc. — occurred during 2019.

And the community lost a longtime public servant this year to cancer, Jim Armbrister, a member of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners who also had been a city police officer.

Spencer’s steps

A project that has dominated the news for the last five years continued to grab headlines during 2019, the transformation of the Spencer’s industrial site to new uses.

After plans for a Barter Theatre expansion and four-star hotel fell through in 2018, a third project forged ahead this year, a $7.8 million, 65-unit upscale apartment complex spearheaded by a real estate development firm in the Chapel Hill area.

“Belmont Sayre has been working hard to complete the market-rate apartments that will provide housing for 65 families in our downtown,” City Manager Barbara Jones stated as part of an end-of-year report summarizing it and other projects.

The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners awarded a $1.75 million construction contract to J.G. Coram Co. last January for related infrastructure improvements at the site, including utilities, street/sidewalk and other facets.

“Demolition of certain buildings in the Spencer’s development area will begin as we kick off 2020,” Jones added. “Once that is complete, the board will plan how to move forward with the development of the remaining property.”

Plans for a culinary center are still in the works at a building located in the rear of the Spencer’s complex, the city manager confirmed. “The Piedmont Triad Regional Council is continuing to pursue grants for the use of the back building, which would allow a culinary kitchen and a training facility.”

Jones also is hopeful about another effort first announced about a year ago targeting a portion of the former Spencer’s property owned by local businessman Gene Rees. It involves an events center that will provide a downtown venue for weddings, meetings and other gatherings.

“This facility is planned to seat 300 people and will be a great opportunity to market Mount Airy on a regional and state level for conferences and professional meeting space,” the city manager commented.

Mall acquisition

The sale of Mayberry Mall, finalized in February, was a definite plus during the year.

The shopping center built in 1968 was a key retail hub in the region for decades until falling into a state of disrepair in recent years, including a leaky roof that caused damage inside the mall. At one point, local officials were poised to shut down the facility as a threat to public health and safety.

But in a last-minute move, T. Scott Smith, who heads WRS Inc. in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, pursued the purchase of the mall from its then-New York owner, minus a freestanding Belk store that has thrived throughout the crisis.

“He has torn down part of the complex and is renovating the remainder,” the city manager mentioned regarding efforts by the veteran shopping center developer launched last year.

Smith reported during the summer that the redevelopment construction process would continue into 2020. “We are hoping to have the entire redeveloped mall back in service in late spring,” he said, including new nationally known retail tenants to replace ones that have left, such as JCPenney.

Hospital name change

Another event that occurred during 2019 involved the local health-care community.

It was the renaming of Northern Hospital of Surry County to Northern Regional Hospital. This was part of what one hospital official called a “comprehensive rebranding campaign” to better reflect its existence as a regional rather than community or county facility.

The change resulted from a marketing survey in Surry and adjoining counties focusing on the image of the hospital that was constructed in 1957.

However, Northern Regional Hospital is remaining true to its roots in this community while also expanding its regional outreach, officials say.

The facility continues to function under its legal business name, Northern Hospital District of Surry County, with the same management team in place.

Hanesbrands closure

When reviewing the down side of 2019, the closure of a textile manufacturer on West Pine Street — announced in April — must be included.

Officials of the Hanesbrands Inc. plant said the facility employing 220 people would close by October 2019, with work done locally to be shipped to El Salvador. This represented just the latest in a long line of textile company outsourcing involving local companies.

Operations began in 1979 at Hanesbrands’ 212,000-square-foot sock plant, which not only was a major employer, but the municipality’s top water customer.

Company officials said they planned to eventually sell the property after operations ceased.

Surry County Economic Development Partnership President Todd Tucker said earlier this month that it is hoped another company will set up shop there.

The marketability of the site will be enhanced by major utility work occurring in its vicinity which was launched in June, the $1.46 million Factory Street water and sewer rehabilitation project.

Jones advised in recent days that the effort involving the replacement of 4,000 feet of water lines and 2,300 feet of sewer lines was “95% complete.”

Economic growth

The city manager also referred to economic gains in Mount Airy during 2019 including:

• Mount Airy’s sale of 4.13 acres of land in Piedmont Triad West Corporate Park to a company called Terra Nova, which was approved in March. The company announced plans to build a 4,000-square-foot office, customer service and retail facility on the property near the interchange of U.S. 601 and Interstate 74, close to Sheetz, and potentially create 30 jobs.

• Also at Piedmont Triad West Corporate Park, Steel Buildings and Structures started constructing a new plant on a 43-acre lot, Jones reported.

• She also cited Eagle Carports’ building of a 64,710-square-foot plant on a 7.55-acre site beside its existing location off the Holly Springs Exit.

• Another high point was the city’s sale of a 3.2-acre lot on Franklin Street, not far from the Spencer’s property, where the new owner plans to build a family fun center. It is described as an unbranded Chuck E. Cheese or Dave & Buster’s type of facility.

End of ETJ

This year also witnessed the demise of an extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) zone, an area extending for one mile outside the city limits where Mount Airy maintained control of commercial and residential development.

The special zone was in place for nearly 20 years, implemented ahead of a massive round of annexation by the city to oversee and manage growth in fringe areas eventually brought in to the municipality.

In recent years, the ETJ provision had grown increasingly unpopular among city commissioners and citizens in the special zone — who complained about not being able to vote for Mount Airy elected officials wielding control over their property.

After a public hearing in the auditorium of Mount Airy High School and other meetings and discussions, the commissioners voted to eliminate the zone effective Sept. 1 and turn over control of it to county officials.

Death of Armbrister

In 2019, Mount Airy said goodbye to Jim Armbrister, who died on Oct. 7 after a long battle with cancer. He was 62.

The cancer diagnosis for Armbrister had prompted his retirement as a lieutenant from the Mount Airy Police Department in 2012 after nearly 20 years of service.

Armbrister, who was a community officer, was well known to local families due to teaching D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) classes at city schools. He also had the distinction of being the first bicycle patrol officer in Mount Airy.

His retirement as a police officer didn’t mean an end to Armbrister’s service to the community, however.

In 2014, he was appointed to a vacant seat on the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners and was elected to a four-year term as at-large commissioner in 2015.

Armbrister was seeking a second term at the time of his death.

Despite his illness worsening over the years, he assisted others stricken by the disease with rides to the doctor and other gestures. Armbrister also was an advocate for cancer patients through his membership on the North Carolina Advisory Committee on Cancer Coordination and Control.

Ron Niland was elected to replace Armbrister on the city council along with two other new members, Tom Koch and Marie Wood.

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The acquisition of the troubled Mayberry Mall by a South Carolina firm promising improvements was a highlight of 2019 for Mount Airy.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/web1_End-this-1.jpgThe acquisition of the troubled Mayberry Mall by a South Carolina firm promising improvements was a highlight of 2019 for Mount Airy.Tom Joyce | The News

The announced closure of the Hanesbrands Inc. sock-making plant on West Pine Street was among the year’s negatives.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/web1_End-this-2.jpgThe announced closure of the Hanesbrands Inc. sock-making plant on West Pine Street was among the year’s negatives.Tom Joyce | The News

Work at the Spencer’s redevelopment site in downtown Mount Airy continued to unfold during 2019, including construction of an upscale apartment complex shown here in recent weeks.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/web1_End-this-3.jpgWork at the Spencer’s redevelopment site in downtown Mount Airy continued to unfold during 2019, including construction of an upscale apartment complex shown here in recent weeks.Tom Joyce | The News

A white rose graces the spot occupied in the City Hall meeting room by Commissioner Jim Armbrister, after his death in October.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/web1_End-this-4.jpgA white rose graces the spot occupied in the City Hall meeting room by Commissioner Jim Armbrister, after his death in October.Tom Joyce | The News

Demolition work occurs at Mayberry Mall during 2019 as part of an overall upgrade in the works at the shopping center.
https://www.mtairynews.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/web1_End-this-5.jpgDemolition work occurs at Mayberry Mall during 2019 as part of an overall upgrade in the works at the shopping center.Tom Joyce | The News
Spencer’s, Mall, ETJ, elections lead highlights

By Tom Joyce

tjoyce@mtairynews.com

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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Source: https://www.mtairynews.com

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