Market Street in downtown Mount Airy is a historic location targeted for a major transformation to address appearance improvements and rough pavement — plans that have become even bumpier in recent days.
Some city officials already were concerned about the cost of Market Street’s proposed facelift options — initially put at $154,800 to $274,200. And the city commissioners learned during their yearly planning retreat Friday afternoon of two new obstacles emerging, along with sentiments that the city should spend money on a new industrial shell building instead.
One issue involves the newly discovered presence of an old easement on the street, which means property included in the plans is private and not part of the public right of way. The other involves the finding of an old concrete street that will hamper the project unless removed.
“I’m not sure we have the right to go in there and build,” City Engineer Mitch Williams explained regarding the easement issue during a presentation Friday on the Market Street effort.
He said it affects plans for structural work and parking, which could mean the loss of at least eight spaces if the parking has to be designed around the easement in the absence of present owners giving consent. “I don’t know how the property owners feel.”
Meanwhile, it is recommended that the old concrete street be removed to offset “elevation problems,” Williams said, which would hamper the building of curbing and pose drainage issues. “So the street needs to go down,” he said of removing the old fixture.
This would add an estimated $50,000 to the price tag for the streetscape improvements now potentially totaling $375,025, according to an opening of bids from contractors earlier this month.
“Market Street’s got a couple of challenges — I mean, we can do it,” the engineer said in summary.
In addition to new asphalt paving, the overall plans call for features including granite curbing, decorative lighting, granite islands, brick pavers, landscaping, a brick sitting wall with a granite cap and columns, a concrete sidewalk with brick banding and others, such as removal bollards.
Those would allow Market Street to be closed temporarily to vehicular traffic to accommodate events such as street festivals.
“We added in two granite crosswalks on both ends of the street,” Williams said of the proposed design concept.
The potential $375,025 construction expense includes a low base bid of $232,025 from Sowers Construction Co., which does not include other desired elements — decorative lighting by Duke Energy ($60,000), landscaping ($10,000), a 10-percent contingency fund for unexpected problems ($23,000) and the concrete street removal of $50,000.
The latter was bid as an alternate in addition to the basic package, with officials believing it to be necessary in order to do the job “right.”
Market Street is one of the smallest roadways in Mount Airy (about 400 feet long) and one of the oldest, once home to longtime local businesses such as Kasco Produce.
But what was once a bustling center of commerce fell into decades of decline marked by business closings and buildings becoming rundown.
In recent years, Market Street has bounced back with new boutique and other stores arriving on the scene along with White Elephant Beer Company and plans for a craft brewery operation. Much growth has been spearheaded through renovation efforts of longtime downtown businessman Gene Rees, whose holdings include property on Market Street.
At the same time, a redevelopment project is under way for the city-owned former Spencer’s industrial complex nearby on Willow Street, with Market Street seen as a vital link between it and North Main Street due to its location in between.
“Market Street, I think, is going to be a key to connect the Spencer’s property and Main Street,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said Friday in support of the facelift the council initiated in early 2016 at the behest of the Mount Airy Appearance Commission.
Yokeley was speaking during the annual planning session Friday, when Commissioner Dean Brown also applauded the streetscape project.
Since one reason for it is to allow the street to be closed for special events that draw more people into town, Brown cited a festival held there last year on a cold day. “It was like the Autumn Leaves Festival,” he said of the huge crowd that resembled the city’s longtime fall event.
“That leads me to believe we were doing the right thing with Market Street,” Brown added of launching the improvement effort. “We could have the same thing there every Saturday night.”
But skepticism was voiced Friday by two other city commissioners, Jon Cawley and Shirley Brinkley.
Cawley, who voted against starting the project last year, mentioned that one of his sons visits the White Elephant for its Trivia Night and to drink beer along with many others. Those folks “go there the way it is now,” he said.
Brinkley also questioned undertaking the project in the name of boosting tourism, noting that crowds already inhabit the area. “People are going to come (regardless),” she said.
Cawley further challenged the wisdom of allocating so much money for a 400-foot street rather than investing in a shell building a local industrial-recruitment official says is sorely needed in the city.
“Are we better off spending $375,000 for Market Street or the shell building?” Cawley said. “I’m not against Market Street — I know it sounds like I am — (but) what if every street in town asked us to do that?”
Mayor David Rowe, who heads a construction company, also expressed skepticism about the project, asking at one point Friday, “Tell me, board members, why would we do this?”
Rowe said the Market Street proposal summarizes a big problem with city government in general, one of good concepts costing huge sums. He called the project “very nice,” but “very expensive.”
Mount Airy officials concluded Friday’s discussion by deciding to address the right-of-way issue and have the plans brought back to the commissioners for a possible budget amendment to fund the improvements.
“We’ll just have to do a title search on it and see,” City Attorney Hugh Campbell said of the easement matter.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.