Those who think downtown Mount Airy is a thriving place now could see even more vitality in the future due to the city’s rejoining of the state Main Street Program.
Local officials received notification in recent days that Mount Airy had been accepted back into the program, a 33-year-old effort it originally joined in the 1980s before exiting.
The municipality reapplied for the North Carolina Main Street Program last year in order to once again take advantage of the technical and organizational expertise of the state Department of Commerce, which oversees its operation.
“We have a great downtown now,” said Ted Ashby, the president of Downtown Mount Airy Inc. (DMI), one of two groups presently involved with activities in the central business district, along with the Downtown Business Association (DBA).
“This is only to make sure we stay ahead of our competition so their downtowns do not catch up,” Ashby added Tuesday of Mount Airy’s return to the state program. “We have a great thing going right now.”
Yet one major element has been missing, Ashby said.
“We have not had the continuity,” he explained regarding Downtown Mount Airy Inc., which oversees infrastructure improvements using a special tax on properties there, and the Downtown Business Association, a promotional organization.
“We’re all-volunteer boards that turn over,” the present DMI president explained. This means their activities might be inadequately logged for future board members and long-range plans not continued.
“I think you’ll find that it will be much better organized,” Ashby said of the downtown operation’s involvement in the Main Street Program. “I would say better short-term and long-term planning and implementation of things we want to do.
“Not that the DBA has done a bad job,” Ashby said of the organization that most people see as the face of downtown Mount Airy, specifically the volunteer efforts of DBA leaders Phil Marsh and Jennie Lowry. “They’ve really stepped up in the last 12 to 18 months,” he said.
“They have to take time out of their work and they can’t continue to do that forever.”
A requirement for participation in the Main Street Program is having a full-time paid coordinator for downtown activities.
“We’re narrowing down our applications right now,” Ashby said of a job opening that attracted about 20 hopefuls — including some with similar experience elsewhere as well as local applicants.
Among the advantages Mount Airy’s membership in the Main Street Program will provide is the ability to apply for grants it wouldn’t be eligible for otherwise. Another will be special tax status that will allow it to accept donations or gifts, which is not accommodated now. The process generally will increase opportunities “for us to invest in our downtown,” Ashby said.
The overall goal will be improving downtown properties, and pursuing their full utilization to ensure an environment for long-term economic success, the DMI president said.
In uptown Lexington, for example, its participation in the Main Street Program has allowed buildings there to be rescued and renovated. Another way the program has assisted communities is the removal of overhead utility lines, according to a presentation by a Department of Commerce representative last year. This has been an aesthetic concern for downtown Mount Airy.
Another ongoing need here has been sufficient parking, which Ashby said should be alleviated with the opening of a new lot on Virginia Street in about three months.
The city’s participation in the Main Street Program is expected to assist in identifying where infrastructure-improvement funds can be best spent.
Ashby also has said that the central business district could do a better job of “branding” itself. “We don’t have a long-range vision of what the downtown needs to be,” Ashby said last year when urging Mount Airy’s pursuit of the Main Street program.
That subsequently occurred due to 2012 being an application year for the state program that then encompassed about 60 cities and towns. It is designed for communities with populations under 50,000, with marketing assistance another of the advantages offered to participants.
Mount Airy will be diving into the Main Street Program sometime after the start of the next fiscal year that begins on July 1, Ashby said. The process requires establishing bylaws and other preliminary steps including the special tax status.
“We’re starting a new business, so to speak,” Ashby said, “so it takes a lot of preparation.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.