Much has happened since Mayor Ron Niland was elected to office in Mount Airy’s 2019 municipal election — filled with both triumph and tragedy — but Niland believes he’s leaving a city government that’s well-positioned for the future.
“I am proud of the accomplishments of this board and community in the last three years,” Niland said during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, when the mayor delivered what he titled a “farewell speech.”
Twelve days before, Niland had lost a hard-fought campaign for the mayor’s seat against present North Ward Commissioner Jon Cawley which grew bitter at times.
But Niland didn’t allude to this in his remarks that took up about the final 10 minutes of last Thursday night’s meeting in the Municipal Building.
“We are all neighbors who care about each other and our great city,” he said while reading from a prepared statement punctuated by impromptu comments at some points.
To say that a whirlwind of events has surrounded city government during his tenure could be considered an understatement.
Niland, then 64, filed to run in July 2019 for the at-large seat on the council, then held by Jim Armbrister, a former member of the Mount Airy Police Department who was battling cancer. Armbrister died one day before a primary election affecting the seat in October of that year and Niland was elected the next month.
And in October 2020, then-Mayor David Rowe — who also was experiencing health issues — resigned from that post and died the next August. Niland was appointed mayor pro tem to lead the city government while also still serving as at-large commissioner.
In May 2021, his fellow board members appointed Niland as mayor, a post he’ll soon relinquish when Cawley and other Nov. 8 election victors are sworn in to office on Dec. 1, with the past year also accompanied by a change in city managers.
“I congratulate the winners who now have the privilege and responsibility to serve our city going forward,” Niland said during his gracious farewell address — referring to incoming commissioners Deborah Cochran, Chad Hutchens and Phil Thacker along with the new mayor.
“I am thankful for all that put their name forward to serve,” the outgoing mayor added, mentioning soon-to-be-departed commissioners Steve Yokeley and Joe Zalescik within his appreciative context. “Until you have been there you don’t know how tough this can be for your families and loved ones.”
Niland had said before last week’s meeting that he does not plan to seek public office in the city again. “No, I’m done.”
Yet he does plan to continue working to serve the community behind the scenes on various projects.
City in a good place
Niland, who also served as city manager of Mount Airy from 1991-96, believes it is in a good place as preparations are made to hand over the keys to new leadership.
The mayor explained that he is proud of both the board and community for accomplishments occurring over the past three years, specifically including the community because none of this has taken place “in a vacuum.”
“We have righted the ship financially and started planning for the future,’ he said of one development.
Niland also listed his formation of “Vision” committees that studied economic development and other areas locally, which included “lots of young folks with a passion for the community” as members.
The nuts and bolts of municipal operations also have benefited. This includes a shift to automated garbage collection which Niland says has represented a major savings to taxpayers due to less personnel being needed for that task, and the buying of a new fire truck.
Niland further listed downtown improvements, including much-needed restrooms recently constructed at the northern end of the central business district, and recreational gains such as plans for a city greenway extension and new pickleball facilities.
Another plus involves further redevelopment of the former Spencer’s textile mill facilities downtown, including a hotel partnership that will bring a Marriott establishment there.
The outgoing mayor also is proud of partnerships forged with the county and state governments along with key non-profit organizations supported financially by City Hall including the Surry Medical Ministries free clinic, Shepherd’s House homeless shelter and others.
Major injections of funding into two other community entities playing valuable roles, the Surry Arts Council and Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, additionally were cited.
Niland seems quite pleased with the hiring late last year of Stan Farmer as city manager, filling a void created by the retirement of Barbara Jones, a fixture in municipal government.
“We hired not only a city manager, we hired one of the best — I think — in this country,” the mayor observed during his parting comments.
“Most importantly, tonight we took a major step in investing in our employees,” Niland said of raises approved earlier in the evening for 70 city workers, including 37 positions in the sometimes-personnel-strapped Mount Airy Police Department.
Niland listed upgrading employee pay as his number one goal when taking office three years ago.
City government is more than just meetings and making decisions on personnel or equipment, with Niland also focusing on the human side of the equation.
“I have always seen this as a public service and tried to treat everyone with compassion and respect,” he stated. “I will treasure the friendships and interactions with those who are making our community a better place to live.”
And while council meetings have been contentious at times, Niland consistently has advanced his belief that everyone ends up leaving the building as friends even though they might have disagreed on various issues.
“In the end, we will not be judged by what happens in this chamber — we will be judged, however, by the way we treat each other outside these walls,” he said.
“We are all neighbors who care about each other and our great city — let that be the legacy to those that follow us,” Niland continued. “We have so much to be thankful for.”
After saying what a “great honor” it has been to serve his community as mayor, Niland grew emotional while rendering the last sentence of his two-page address Thursday night:
“God bless everyone and thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Niland’s speech was greeted by vigorous applause from the audience.