Mount Airy is seeking to enhance its downtown business community by joining the state’s Main Street Program and hiring a full-time coordinator to spearhead improvements there.
This includes $45,000 being committed from the municipal budget for a three-year period to help pay the coordinator, and permanently taking over maintenance and lighting of downtown parking lots and alleys from an entity known as Downtown Mount Airy Inc. (DMI).
Many local residents might have the impression that the city’s downtown section — the recent winner of a statewide Great Main Street contest — already is doing well.
“But we don’t do as good a job of branding as we could,” DMI President Ted Ashby told the mayor and board of commissioners during a meeting this week in which the city funding commitments were made.
And while officials of city government, and Downtown Mount Airy Inc., agree that the central business district is thriving, they say there are ways to improve and keep it moving forward.
“We don’t have a long-range vision of what the downtown needs to be,” Ashby said of one objective. That includes establishing a brand, he said in reference to a marketing practice that uses a name, symbol or design to identify and differentiate a particular product — in this case the downtown area.
Ashby said DMI doesn’t want to detract from what organizations such as the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce or Surry Arts Council already are doing downtown, but to “augment” their efforts. Downtown Mount Airy Inc. is an arm of city government which maintains and improves the infrastructure in the central business district using a special additional tax levied on properties there.
Joining the state’s Main Street Program, offered through the N.C. Department of Commerce, would enable Mount Airy to tap into that agency’s expertise in marketing and other areas, supporters of the plan say.
This week’s meeting between Ashby and municipal officials came on the heels of a presentation by Ben Murphrey, an official of the Main Street Program, at a commissioners meeting last Thursday.
Murphrey said then that the 32-year-old program, which Mount Airy joined in the 1980s but later dropped out of, selects new participants every three years through a competitive application process. He added that 2012 is an application year for the program geared toward communities with populations under 50,000, which now involves some 60 cities and towns.
It provides technical and organizational assistance in improving the appearance of downtown areas, both buildings and streetscapes; establishing a “common image” for an area; and promoting it effectively to the outside world. The program also can help in analyzing parking availability and needs, and identify new types of businesses to provide downtown diversification.
Expanding economic development, and job opportunities, is the ultimate goal, Murphrey said, adding that this would occur within the context of historic presentation. “You have a beautiful Main Street, beautiful building stock, so you want to maintain that so it preserves your unique character.”
One possible way downtown Mount Airy’s appearance could be improved is doing away with overhead utility lines. Murphrey presented various before-and-after pictures highlighting such aesthetic improvements made in various municipalities.
“You’ve seen our town — I can’t imagine improving on it much,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said during Murphrey’s presentation.
He explained that the Main Street Program would utilize the positive elements existing in the downtown area and take them to another level.
“We’re just here to provide what you want,” Murphrey said of Department of Commerce personnel. “It all depends on what you want and need.”
Murphrey said the state assistance itself wouldn’t cost anything. “We’re a state program — everything we provide is free of charge,” he said, although localities are asked to reimburse the travel and meal costs of experts who visited Mount Airy.
However, there also is a bit of a catch in that each community in the Main Street Program is required to have a full-time coordinator, who is projected to have an annual salary here of $40,000 to $50,000.
Mount Airy once had such a person on board after it first joined the state program, which was created in 1980 to help revitalize downtown areas decimated by the rise of shopping centers and strip malls.
Request To Board
After last week’s presentation by Murphrey, Ashby made his funding pitch to municipal government leaders this week.
He said that although Downtown Mount Airy Inc. has money available through revenues from the special tax, which has been collected since the 1970s, it must be used for a variety of purposes. In addition to ongoing obligations such as a maintenance contract for parking lots and other areas and lighting, DMI takes on special projects.
One presently under way involves plans to provide parking spaces at a site near Leon’s Burger Express called the Shelton property, which was acquired last year.
“We (DMI officials) can’t hire a new coordinator and develop the Shelton property at the same time,” Ashby said. ‘We can’t do it all.”
He asked the commissioners to help DMI pay the coordinator’s salary on a staggered basis for three years, during which city government would chip in $20,000 the first year, $15,000 the second and $10,000 the third.
“That would give us time to build up our reserves again,” the DMI president said of the three-year period. “We are not asking for city funds on any long-term basis.”
Ashby also requested that the municipality permanently take over the maintenance obligation for DMI, an expense of about $20,000 per year.
Lack of city assistance would strain the DMI budget, thus hampering the ability to maintain a quality downtown area and compete with other communities, he said.
Ashby added that the coordinator could help the city acquire grants for identified improvements.
The commissioners subsequently agreed, in a unanimous vote, to grant the DMI funding request and incorporate it into the 2012-2013 city budget that would be adopted later during the same session.
Commissioner Scott Graham said he believes there are many things that could still be done in the downtown area, such as providing more greenery and space for outside dining.
“I think it’s the right thing to do for Mount Airy,” Graham said of granting the DMI funding request.
Commissioner Steve Yokeley said the investment should more than pay for itself.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.