The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners has earmarked nearly $300,000 for a list of downtown projects, in a 3-2 vote that reflected some officials’ concerns about making such a commitment amid funding uncertainties.
“Where’s the money coming from?” the board’s Tom Koch asked Thursday afternoon as commissioners debated allocating $295,000 from some still-to-be-determined city budget source for five of six projects proposed at a total estimated cost of $592,000.
Plans call for the rest — slightly more than half of the total — to come from the group Mount Airy Downtown Inc., which administers funds generated from the Municipal Service District tax on property owners in the central business district. It is paid in addition to regular property taxes to cover common improvements downtown, a mechanism that has been in place for many years.
The projects presently eyed, as outlined to the commissioners Thursday by Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison of the downtown organization include:
• An updated master plan to guide future investments in the central business district, both public and private, in a cost-effective manner. It includes identifying development opportunities; public parking solutions; a traffic-flow analysis and possible changes such as the removal of stoplights along North Main Street and making it two-way rather than one-way; and burying overhead power lines, among others.
The total $75,000 cost of this is to come from the municipality. The last master plan covering the downtown area was completed in 2004.
• Public restrooms in the 400 block of North Main, to be installed in an area of a municipal parking lot between Brannock and Hiatt Furniture and Old North State Winery. Morrison said this will entail two unisex units. The only other public restrooms are in an area farther down the street where a new mural honoring The Easter Brothers musical group is located.
The city government also was asked to supply the entire $100,000 estimated cost of that project.
• Improvements to outdoor spaces centered around public art, including a large-scale Andy Griffith mural on a wall at Brannock and Hiatt Furniture and further work in Melva’s Alley now containing a mural of late local singer Melva Houston. Under Thursday’s action, the city will pay $50,000 toward a total $85,000 price tag.
• A public alley sanitation and security initiative for which the key component involves a $50,000 request to Mount Airy officials to repave an alley on Oak Street and implement sanitation solutions there. This part of the package, which Mount Airy Downtown will contribute $6,000 toward, also covers security cameras.
• New banners for Main and Market streets, a $26,000 item for which the downtown group will supply $6,000.
Based on Morrison’s breakdown, Mount Airy Downtown has agreed to foot the total $150,000 expense of developing a “pocket park” on Willow Street near the Sparger Building on former Spencer’s property which is eyed for a hotel.
Council debates timing
In answer to Commissioner Koch’s question about where the money will come from, two possible sources emerged Thursday afternoon:
“Either ARP or general fund,” said Commissioner Marie Wood, who made a motion to supply the city’s share of the nearly $600,000 cost of the downtown projects.
In April, her fellow municipal officials appointed Wood to the board of directors of Mount Airy Downtown Inc. as an non-voting, ex officio member representing the city government and serving as a liaison between it and the downtown group.
Wood’s motion was backed by fellow board members Steve Yokeley and the newly sworn in Joe Zalescik. Koch and Commissioner Jon Cawley cast the dissenting votes.
“ARP” refers to the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal economic-stimulus measure approved earlier this year to help the country recover from the effects of COVID-19 — for which Mount Airy has been appropriated around $3 million.
The general fund, also is known as the city’s surplus or savings, has been the go-to source to dip into over the years for major expenses and to balance the annual municipal budget.
But Koch said Mount Airy has other items that he indicated are more pressing than downtown improvements, including the replacement of older fire and garbage trucks and an HVAC upgrade at Reeves Community Center.
“We’ve got all these needs,” he said of potential alternate uses from the sources suggested.
Koch added that he did not favor using ARP monies for “special-interest” projects that come down the pike, which also recently included a $300,000 request for a renovation project at the historic Satterfield House.
“So I’m against it,” he said of the plan presented by Morrison, who made it clear Thursday she wasn’t specifically seeking funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, although many of the projects eyed “line up” with its approved uses.
The exact rules regarding allowable ARP expenditures are still being worked out, Interim City Manager Darren Lewis told the commissioners Thursday.
Given that uncertainty and other questions, Cawley called the vote on Wood’s motion “premature.”
He also expressed concerns about the $50,000 sought for a single alleyway on Oak Street in the plan, which four restaurants back into, based on the discussion.
“Are we going to set a precedent?” he said of the fact that other alleys exist in town where business owners might seek improvements.
Cawley clarified that he is not against the proposal presented by the Main Street coordinator itself.
“I like a lot of what’s in there,” he said of the project list. “But I want to vote on it one by one.”
Koch also questioned the use of city funding to pay for the new restroom facilities. “That would be a first for Mount Airy,” he said of the fact that those in the existing rest area were provided through Municipal Service District revenues.
The majority of commissioners were in favor of moving ahead with the downtown projects.
Commissioner Yokeley said the terminology for Thursday’s approval should be re-evaluated to highlight that an “investment” is involved.
“There’s a big difference in investment rather than expense,” said Yokeley, who believes the projects will produce huge rewards in the future which greatly outweigh the up-front costs.
Yokeley said he supports using money from the fund balance, but “if we can take it out of ARP money, that would be great.”