Fourteen months after a collapse at the Main-Oak Emporium building in downtown Mount Airy, could the patience of city officials over a lack of repairs there also be finally reaching a tipping point?
The fate of the structure at the busy corner of North Main and East Oak streets has been a topic of conversation among them in recent weeks, drawing concern from Commissioner Marie Wood in particular.
“I’m really worried for the merchants, the safety of the building,” Wood said during a late-August meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, when she also complained about similar inactivity with two other problem structures in the West Pine Street area.
“And I think the public needs to know what we can do, if anything, concerning that building,” she added regarding the Main-Oak structure that suffered the collapse on July 5, 2022 and basically has remained in a state of disrepair since.
For months as a result, one lane of North Street and both lanes of East Oak were closed, leading the municipality to impose a $100-per-day fine on the building’s owner, Mt. Airy One, a Durham-based LLC. That eventually led to the structure being shored up enough to allow the two streets to be fully reopened, in late June nearly one year after the collapse.
But little if anything has happened since and the boarded-up building surrounded by scaffolding still doesn’t look too sturdy.
Wood was not reassured by an update from Mt. Airy One representatives to city officials during a July 20 commissioners meeting.
While Steve Hetherington, an official of Mt. Airy One, indicated that the firm was pursuing rehabilitation of the collapsed structure and pursuing plans for apartments in another part of the Main-Oak Emporium complex, he was unable to provide specifics. This included an exact plan and timetable.
“I don’t have a lot of answers today,” Hetherington said during the July meeting, which Wood referred to during the most-recent one.
“I didn’t get any good responses from the gentlemen that own it,” she said of the July update by Mt. Airy One, or a Winston-Salem developer accompanying Hetherington who pledged a quality improvement effort for the Main-Oak site.
“To me that was just nothing, and I figure we need more than that.”
Mayor Jon Cawley said last week that the lack of repair work could be due to a reported lack of financing by Mt. Airy One in order to make the rehab happen.
“It’s private property and property owners do have rights,” he had said during the recent meeting.
“I know it’s going to be a difficult situation to handle,” Commissioner Wood acknowledged then.
She appealed to Mayor Cawley for answers: “Any suggestions on how we can approach it, or what the city can legally do with that property?” she asked. “It’s not ours at this point.”
“Exploring all avenues”
Cawley advised during the Aug. 17 session that he and Interim City Manager Darren Lewis had been in a four-hour meeting that morning in which the Main-Oak matter took up much of the time.
“Your frustration is shared across the board,” he told Wood regarding the seeking of repairs, “and we are exploring all avenues to expedite something that if we don’t expedite it, it does not seem that it will ever get done.”
The mayor then looked at City Attorney Hugh Campbell.
“And probably, at the advice of counsel, that’s probably all I need to say right now, isn’t it?”
Campbell agreed with a chuckle. “Thank you, yes, sir.”
“We’re looking into possible options,” the mayor disclosed last week, without elaborating. “I certainly share Marie’s frustration.”
Commissioner Wood said that it is good to let the public know the situation is being looked into and “we’re not just sitting here — just wanted to get that on the record.”
“Every day there are people working on it,” the mayor assured.
“Good to know,” Wood replied.
Mittman, red buildings
Commissioner Wood also has recently lamented a lack of progress with two other dilapidated structures, the old Mittman body shop at 109 S. South St. and the so-called “red building” nearby at 600 W. Pine St. beside Worth Honda.
In February 2022, the two had been targeted by the city government for a forced demolition if their owners didn’t take corrective action within 90 days — which failed to happen in either case.
Wood said at the late-August council meeting that she understood both the former Mittman property and the red building had been acquired by Bobby Koehler of J&E Properties of North Carolina, LLC based on Park Drive.
This was expected to bring solutions, the revamping of the old Mittman property and the razing of the red building, neither of which has transpired.
“I’m concerned about the Mittman building — it looks like its been in the same shape that it’s been for a couple of months now,” Wood said at the late-August meeting.
“I haven’t seen any work being done on it and grass is growing up around it,” she further commented. “That is a concern.”
Wood suggested that the new owner of the two sites be invited to a council meeting to update city officials on both.
“I’d like to see that happen.”