The eight candidates seeking four seats in the Mount Airy mayoral election are divided in their opinions on an update to the downtown master plan – essentially mirroring the split accompanying its 3-2 approval last month by the commissioners of the city.
While four of the candidates interviewed are officially opposed to the plan, two have openly embraced it while two others appear to be taking a middle-of-the-road approach.
The timing of the plan’s adoption in September has made it a political issue as the campaign draws to a close with the November 8 general election. It includes two candidates each vying for three seats of municipal commissioner and that of mayor.
Along with office seekers, the new downtown master plan – an update of the 2004 one – has attracted its share of supporters and detractors among the community at large. The 78-page document was prepared by Benchmark, a company that has been managing the planning functions since 2011, contracted as a separate project outside of its normal responsibilities.
The main bone of contention is recommendations to provide “flexible spaces” for outdoor dining and other uses by reconfiguring North Main Street, which runs through downtown, and sidewalks. The plan also calls for planting trees, burying power lines, and other cosmetic changes.
Critics fear that all of this will destroy the traditional charm and appeal of the central business district and give it the “cookie-cutter” look of some big cities.
Deborah Cochran, a former commissioner and mayor currently vying for the council seat, is among those wary of the possible repercussions.
“I grew up here and I don’t agree with making changes to Main Street,” Cochran commented.
“Our city center has a positive effect on locals and tourists, whether it’s walking, shopping, eating out, getting a haircut, going to the cinema or the museum. , to watch parades or just to look at the design of the city center.”
Cochran says what’s happening now reminds him of an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” called “Mayberry Goes Hollywood,” which involves citizens wanting to alter the look of the city in order to put on tunes for a production. Still, his existing character was what the Hollywood team wanted.
However, Cochran’s opponent for the seat at large, current South Ward Commissioner Steve Yokeley, believes there is nothing to fear from the plan which was crafted through community workshops held in a nine month process.
“This plan is not a set of plans with a timeline to tear up the streets tomorrow, next week, or even in the next two years,” Yokeley replied of that concern. He says this is based on his research and his participation in the update effort from the beginning.
“Some people will make you believe these things to instill fear in hopes of personal political gain.”
Yokeley specifically referenced a comment at the September 1 commissioners’ meeting when a public hearing was held on the plan ahead of the 3-2 vote.
“I heard from someone (at the time) that they wouldn’t be surprised if the dismantling of Main Street started the next day,” he recalled.
“It was a very misinformed statement,” Yokeley added. “The plan is merely a guiding document – there are many checks and balances still in place before any changes can occur.”
Future Boards of Commissioners will have the authority to make adjustments to the streetscape design once the planning process for each section of the document is implemented, according to Yokeley, “including where engineering construction documents are offered”.
“When determining which parts of the plan are implemented, it is crucial to get input from all stakeholders,” North Ward Commissioner candidate Chad Hutchens also said.
“It’s also critical that downtown businesses are communicated transparently so that all parties understand timelines and expectations and have information to make decisions about their businesses.”
If he is victorious, South Ward Commissioner candidate Phil Thacker promises that no change will happen willy-nilly.
“I love this city and want to make all decisions after careful consideration,” Thacker remarked. “I will keep an open mind and listen to all of our citizens before making any decisions regarding Mount Airy’s downtown plan” if elected.
Mayor Ron Niland has a similar view:
“Parts of the plan should be revisited to determine what works and what might not work – it’s not an all-or-nothing situation,” Niland stressed.
“We have consistently made improvements over the years and they have proven to be beneficial,” he continued. “Funding and implementation (of elements of the plan) will come at a later date – when that happens we will re-examine what is possible and find ways to minimize the impact on business.”
The mayor added: “I have stated that I support the process and the goal of a better experience for visitors and residents.”
Major changes needed?
John Pritchard, who is running for a North Ward seat on the city board that Commissioner Jon Cawley is quitting to run for mayor, agrees with many downtown players – basically why spoil the success?
“We already have a much better image and ‘brand image’ of Main Street than most similar cities across the country,” Pritchard observed. “It’s our own golden goose – unique, original and internationally known.”
Pritchard mentioned that this view is supported by steadily increasing tourism numbers for the downtown area.
“Let’s keep it in top shape, but certainly don’t trade it for the same cookie-cutter ideas that are being pushed in many other cities,” the North Ward candidate noted. “It would be like the ‘New Coke’ disaster many years ago, and they still haven’t fully recovered.”
In not supporting the plan, Pritchard said the vast majority of the community expressed the same view, including at the public hearing in September.
Meanwhile, his opponent, Hutchens, has an optimistic but cautious view of the plan.
“I attended the workshops, read the plan and I’m interested in developing our downtown while maintaining our small town charm,” he says, who also recognizes the benefits of his visit.
“There are valid concerns with the plan,” Hutchens agreed.
“Companies want to make sure their customers aren’t negatively impacted, and taxpayers want to know how the plan will be funded. I agree with these concerns and believe they can be addressed with exemplary leadership. »
“Suggestions” seen as an alternative
“The Downtown Master Plan would be more specifically defined as suggested projects for the downtown core,” in the words of Commissioner/candidate for mayor Cawley.
“The suggestions came after a group of invested citizens met for nine months under the leadership of Benchmark,” he said.
“I believe the purpose of these meetings was to improve our downtown. Many of the suggestions could possibly accomplish this goal.
Cawley voted against the plan on September 1 with Commissioner Tom Koch.
Besides the merits or shortcomings of the measure itself, Gene Clark — who is running against Thacker for the South Ward commissioner seat — has issues with its evolution and the potential costs of the recommendations included.
“I don’t agree with the plan for several reasons,” Clark commented. “I think it’s a conflict of interest to ask a company we currently have a contract with (Benchmark) to give us an unbiased assessment of our city planning, knowing that they have a vested interest in the plan. “
A secondary concern for Clark is its financial implications.
“I think the plan does not take into account the initial cost or the ongoing costs. How do you approve a plan without knowing the cost? ” He asked.
“Third, what is the return on our investment? I know we will never be 100% back. but there has to be a justification for spending millions of dollars – how does that increase the city’s revenue?
Cawley also referred to the expense aspect: “A plan typically includes a timeline, associated costs, and projected funding for completion.”
Clark further criticized the fact that the vote on the measure took place during the same meeting as the public hearing when many citizens spoke out against its passage.
“It looks like the public hearing is a farce and the decision (has) already been made.”
Clark was one of those who spoke at that session, saying he thought more information was needed before formalizing the plan.
But Thacker, his opponent, is comfortable with his background, citing early on the opportunity for citizens to participate in a series of workshops.
“There seemed to be a good turnout and a lot of discussion about the plan,” recalls Thacker, one of those there. “While I was attending these meetings, there was a small amount of negative discussion about the plan, so I assumed that almost all of us wanted to improve the downtown area with this plan.”
Now that a group of citizens are unhappy with the decision of the majority of commissioners, Thacker says he needs additional information to better understand where everyone is coming from on the issue.
“We have a group that wants Mount Airy to stay the same and a group that attended those meetings that were working to bring about change.”
Leadership a factor?
Cawley thinks the ongoing conflict could have been avoided.
“Our current problem is not so much the ideas offered, but rather the response to those ideas,” he suggested.
“Those who are for and against the ideas have felt the need to ‘dig in’ to protect their interests. Our community was divided and the feud was sad to watch.
Cawley puts this at the feet of his opponent, Mayor Niland.
“If I had been mayor, I would have publicly corrected the misinformation that was spreading and avoided the unnecessary vote of the commissioners after the public hearing,” he explained.
“The mayor should also have given assurances to those who feared losing their livelihoods due to the disruption of activities caused by construction that such would not be the case,” Cawley said.
“Our mayor’s silence has only made the problem worse.”