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Shaping up ‘Cube’ could cost city nothing

Redevelopment efforts at the former Spencer’s industrial property in downtown Mount Airy usually wind up being costly propositions for the city government now owning it — but this could change with plans for the latest endeavor.

It involves a structure at the former textile mill complex known as the “Cube Building,” where a culinary school, workforce development components of the local community college and a commercial-quality kitchen to aid Mount Airy City Schools’ programs are envisioned.

A $1.5 million grant application to the Appalachian Regional Commission which would have funded renovations to a portion of the multi-floored Cube Building for the culinary institute component was unsuccessful.

But when one door closes another sometimes opens, and that is the case with an earlier-reported $3.5 million grant opportunity through a different funding agency, for which more details emerged last Thursday night — including a potential zero-cost for the city.

“We’ve been looking for ways to get re-engaged in that,” Executive Director Matthew Dolge, of the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, told local officials regarding the Cube Building in light of the grant denial.

The Kernersville-based Piedmont council — which assists local government units in a 12-county area on economic-development and other efforts — introduced the idea of a culinary school/training facility last winter and has worked to make it a reality.

“I think there could be some great synergy with a lot of partners,” Dolge said Thursday night of Surry Community College and others involved.

PTRC officials have said the proposed culinary institute would train students in need of employment opportunities for chef and other high-paying jobs in the area restaurant industry — while supplying it with needed personnel.

EDA grant shows promise

A breakthrough could now be in store through a new grant opportunity, the seeking of $3.5 million from the federal Economic Development Administration.

It regularly aids infrastructure, facilities, planning, feasibility studies and similar projects to improve regional economies, but Dolge says it has set aside special funding for hurricane-affected areas, including Surry County.

“It’s a great opportunity,” the regional official said of his research to determine how Mount Airy might tap into monetary assistance from the EDA. “It also can be used for a broader scope of services. “

Another advantage is that the Economic Development Administration, which normally mandates a 50-50 match of local funding for its grants, is requiring only 80-20 for the special storm-related funding, Dolge added.

“It has to be a cash match, so that’s a big issue,” he said of the $700,000 commitment, which normally might be satisfied by the city using the building as an in-kind contribution.

“We feel real good about this,” Dolge said of the chances of receiving the $3.5 million, based on preliminary discussions with a regional EDA branch. “I feel good about approval through the Atlanta office.”

Golden Leaf a key

A solution for the match requirement surrounds previous funding awarded to Mount Airy from another entity which could be used for that, according to Thursday night’s update.

This involves a $722,500 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation announced in the spring of 2017 for water and sewer improvements at the Spencer’s site. The foundation was established in 1999 to inject tobacco settlement agreement monies into North Carolina’s rural and economically distressed communities.

Mount Airy and Piedmont Triad Regional Council officials are seeking to have the Golden Leaf funding qualify as the local match. City Manager Barbara Jones is planning to meet soon with Golden Leaf personnel, when it is hoped that option will gain steam.

This would mean no city funding for renovating and equipping the Cube Building, after sizable expenditures in 2019 for infrastructure work to accommodate an apartment complex on another portion of the Spencer’s property, building demolition and asbestos abatement.

The city commissioners voted unanimously Thursday night for the municipality to be a co-applicant for the $3.5 million grant, which Jones called “a starting point” for the process that will require other steps later.

“There will be still more to do on this,” she assured.

The fate of the grant application is expected to be known by the summer.

Public use stipulation

Dolge mentioned that one drawback with the EDA grant is that it would require the Cube Building to have a public use for a 20-year period.

If, for example, the culinary project proved to be a failure after 10 years and the city government sought to sell the property to someone in the private sector, it must reimburse the money to the federal agency.

The project would involve an expansion to Mount Airy of an existing entity in Winston-Salem, the Providence Culinary Training Program. It is associated with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina.

Some city residents attended Thursday night’s commissioners meeting with an interest in the culinary effort, including Calvin Vaughn, who spoke about it during a public forum.

Vaughn said he hoped local residents could benefit from the program rather than persons from out of town, including job creation and being given priority for admission to the school.

He also was concerned that the non-profit nature of the endeavor would not allow the municipality to reap property tax revenues.

Past discussions have indicated that its concept also might include pursuing revenue-producing opportunities to support the school’s operations, such as bidding on Meals on Wheels contracts, providing food services for local schools and catering.

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Mount Airy Commissioner Ron Niland, left, chats with Executive Director Matthew Dolge of the Piedmont Triad Regional Council during a meeting Thursday night when plans for a culinary training center on the former Spencer’s textile mill property downtown were updated. Airy Commissioner Ron Niland, left, chats with Executive Director Matthew Dolge of the Piedmont Triad Regional Council during a meeting Thursday night when plans for a culinary training center on the former Spencer’s textile mill property downtown were updated. Tom Joyce | The News
Culinary institute, other facilities envisioned

By Tom Joyce

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



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