Tuesday, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners held a public hearing on a plan for the city to pay up to $375,000 to extend water and sewer service to a proposed upscale housing development in the White Sulphur Springs area just outside the city.
Presumably, the county also is considering putting in up to $375,000 of the cost of extending these city utilities to the project.
Those behind the development say it is virtually impossible to convince anyone to purchase high-end property when there is no water or sewer service available.
On Tuesday, officials with the Surry County Economic Development Partnership, along with a representative of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, urged the board to grant approval of the plan.
Their reasoning is that this really is no different than a locality paying the cost of water and sewer service to an industrial location, or paying to build a shell building for a new business tenant to occupy.
That analogy does hold some accuracy. The property, if it is developed, will offer a fair bit of water and sewer income to the city. An even bigger prize is the tax revenue the city would see if it annexed the project, which it appears is part of the larger plan.
The potential problem in all of this is that, particularly in the present economic climate, residential real estate is a highly speculative market. If the city, and the county, each come up with the money, they could be paid back many times over through the years.
Then again, the city and county could each put up the money and find the property still sitting largely vacant ten years down the road.
As city commissioners debate whether to grant this request, they should view this as somewhere between a sound, safe investment and pure gambling. Putting taxpayer money into this project fits neither one of these labels but lies somewhere in between.
It is on that basis the commissioners should make their decision. If they believe the city can fork over this money without ever seeing a dime of it returned, then it is probably a good move for them to go ahead and grant approval.
However, if they believe the city needs something more concrete — at the very least seeing the owners of the proposed development put up some of their own money, or a bona fide guarantee to reimburse the city if the project does not come to fruition after a certain time — then the board members should demand those guarantees or reject the request.
No matter which way the board goes, we renew our call that the board do nothing which would require present users of the water and sewer system to pay for this project through the use of higher user fees.