Two schools of thought regarding downtown Mount Airy – a need to plan for the future versus a sense of “leaving Main Street alone” – collided head-on during a heated public hearing Thursday night.
And after listening to more than an hour from 18 speakers – those most opposed or skeptical of an update to the downtown master plan – commissioners voted 3-2 to pass the document as a blueprint for change. major in the central business district.
The unusually high number of citizens offering commentary was matched by a huge crowd of spectators packed into the municipal building for the occasion – which spilled over into an adjoining lobby.
After the split decision that Commissioner Marie Wood was on the winning side, she tried to allay fears from some in the massive audience that the outcome will serve to dramatically transform North Main Street – the key artery of downtown.
“I have no problem with this plan because it’s a plan,” Wood said, arguing that a guideline is simply implied and not set in stone when it comes to final changes. “It’s a step forward for this city.”
Commissioner Jon Cawley – who voted against the proposal along with the board’s Tom Koch – offered a more ominous perspective and questioned why it was so important to hold a vote on it on Thursday night.
“It looks like we’re in a rush tonight to pass it – and I don’t understand why,” Cawley said of the plan, pointing out that he likes a lot of the aspects of it, but is also concerned about what’s going on. will happen next.
“We could start tearing up the streets next week – I know that sounds facetious, but it could happen.”
The downtown master plan update, prepared by Charlotte-based consulting firm Benchmark, has been in the works since last fall, when city officials agreed that a 2004 original needed a refresh.
Benchmark, a company that has handled similar projects for other cities, completed the document earlier this summer and made it available to the public.
The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted last November to commit $67,000 in municipal funds for the update as well as funds from the Mount Airy Downtown Inc. group for a total cost of approximately $125,000.
After being commissioned for the project, Benchmark held a series of meetings to obtain local feedback for the final document as well as a formal community survey.
But several speakers opposed to the adoption of the updated master plan stressed on Thursday evening that the citizens involved in this process represent only about 4% of the city’s population.
“Mayberry tourism is growing,” Main Street co-ordinator Lizzie Morrison of Mount Airy Downtown, a proponent of the plan, told the hearing. “Mayberry’s charm remains on Main Street because downtown growth is planned, it’s intentional, it has a purpose and it takes into consideration who we are and where we’re going. »
After his comments, Morrison asked the other supporters in the audience to stand.
This was followed by plan skeptic Martha Truskolaski, owner of the downtown Spotted Moon gift shop, calling on those opposed to do the same during her time on the catwalk.
There were conflicting opinions as to whether the “anti-plan” group outnumbered the “pro” contingent, or whether their numbers were about equal.
The statements of many speakers were greeted with applause.
Main Street Concerns
While the downtown master plan update proposes major changes to the downtown core as a whole, including new housing, parking lots and other developments on adjacent streets such as Franklin and Renfro, its main obstacle was the main concern of the speakers.
A key part of the update focuses on downtown car travel and new streetscape configurations, with the plan recommending that one-way traffic be maintained along North Main Street – the thoroughfare main crossing the central business district.
However, the new plan includes five different one-way options, three of which would involve changing from the current two lanes of traffic to one with corner or parallel parking on one side. The street itself would be 20 feet wide.
This reflects a desire to create “flexible space” to allow for more outdoor dining and other sidewalk changes that would be accomplished by providing 20 feet of space on either side of the street.
Sidewalks 12 to 20 feet wide are planned, along with the addition of trees, the burying of above-ground utility lines, strategically placed loading areas, new decorative streetlights and a bollard system.
Many of those speaking Thursday night see the changes as detrimental to a downtown they say is already beloved by local residents and tourists who appreciate its quaintness and hometown qualities separating Mount Airy from the big cities.
Gene Clark’s opinion, also embraced by others, was, “Why do we think we need to change the look?” from the main street.
“We don’t have to look like Asheville or Charlotte,” added Clark, a candidate for city council this year. “We have to look like Mount Airy.”
This was echoed by John Pritchard, another council candidate. “I don’t want us to be like a cookie-cutter city – we are what we are and it works.”
“Your downtown is a blessing – it takes you back in time,” said speaker Devon Hays, who relocated to the Pine Ridge community nearly two years from California.
Hays praised the “beautiful broad street” that now exists.
“You have something special – don’t blow it up,” he said, a comment that prompted a shout of “Amen!” of a woman at the back of the room with applause.
A similar view was expressed by Norm Schultz, who moved to Mount Airy a year ago because of his local qualities. He objected to the “gentrification” that seems to be involved in updating the master plan – defined as a process of making something more polished, polished or respectable.
“I’m not against growth,” Schultz continued in reference to the suggestion that the proposals would promote economic gains.
“If you change streets, you take small town America away.”
“The way it is now, it’s so perfect,” remarked speaker Karen Armstrong. “But taking it and completely changing it is heartbreaking for me.”
Shirley Brinkley, a former city commissioner, also weighed in Thursday night. She acknowledged that the updated master plan seems to contain some good and some not so good elements, while expressing a specific concern.
“I am totally and completely against making Main Street a lane,” said Brinkley, who is concerned about how it might affect deliveries to businesses along this route and the hilly terrain of the side streets that would prevent their use as alternatives.
And two downtown businessmen, Corky Fulton of Fancy Gap Outfitters and Mark Wyatt of Wyatt’s Trading Post, each expressed concern about the loss of parking spaces on North Main.
“The one thing you don’t want to do is take a single parking spot out of downtown Mount Airy,” Fulton said.
Impact on events
Randy Collins, president and CEO of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, another speaker, backs the update, citing the old adage “to fail to plan is to plan to fail.”
Collins said he was initially concerned about how changes to the streetscape might hamper major downtown events such as the chamber-sponsored Fall Leaf Festival, but said he was assured that wouldn’t hurt.
“All of our questions and concerns were answered,” Collins said.
“Change is inevitable, and we have to plan for it,” observed the chamber official, a view also offered by two other speakers in favor of updating the plan, Len Fawcett and Lauren Jennings.
Yet former Autumn Leaves festival director Travis Frye, now tourism co-ordinator for Dobson and Surry County, was not as optimistic as Collins.
Frye wondered if enough definitive studies of how events would be affected had been undertaken.
“My concern is that we don’t have enough detailed information,” said Frye, who thought it should be provided before the plan was adopted.
“Progress is not progress just because we want it to change,” he added. “Streets concern me, especially where it affects tourism.”
Frye also said the street needed to be wide enough to accommodate a fire truck.
Local business owner Donna Hiatt told the hearing that repairs to existing infrastructure – such as streets, sidewalks and the water system – should be undertaken before North Main Street is changed.
There were also concerns on Thursday night about where the money needed to do so would come from.
“Who is going to pay for this? – I think it will be the taxpayers,” said speaker Grant Welch.