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The eight candidates seeking four seats in Mount Airy’s municipal election are divided in their opinions on an update to the downtown master plan — essentially reflecting the split that began with the 3-2 approval by city commissioners last month comes along.

While four of the candidates polled are reportedly opposed to the plan, two have openly embraced it, while two others appear to be pursuing a middle ground.

The timing of the plan’s passage in September has made it a political issue as the campaign concludes with the November 8 general election. It includes two candidates, each vying for three city commissioner seats and that of mayor.

Along with office seekers, the new downtown master plan — an update of a 2004 plan — has garnered its share of supporters and critics throughout the community. The 78-page document was produced by Benchmark, a company that has been performing urban planning functions since 2011 and was commissioned as a separate project alongside its normal responsibilities.

The main point of contention surrounds recommendations to provide “flex spaces” for al fresco dining and other uses by reconfiguring North Main Street, which runs through downtown, and sidewalks. The plan also calls for planting trees, burying utility lines, and other cosmetic changes.

Critics fear all of this could destroy the central business district’s traditional charm and appeal and give it the look of some larger cities.

Legitimate fears?

Deborah Cochran, a former commissioner and mayor who is now vying for a vacant seat on the council, is among those fearing the potential repercussions.

“I grew up here and I don’t support Main Street changes,” Cochran commented.

“Our downtown area has a positive impact on locals and tourists alike, whether they’re walking, shopping, dining out, getting a haircut, going to a movie screening or museum, watching parades, or just looking at downtown design.”

Cochran says what’s happening now reminds her of an episode of The Andy Griffith Show called “Mayberry Goes Hollywood,” in which citizens wanted to change the look of the city in order to appear in a production. Yet his existing character was what the Hollywood crew wanted.

However, Cochran’s opponent for the at-large seat, current South Ward Commissioner Steve Yokeley, believes there is nothing to fear from the plan, which was developed through conducting community workshops over a nine-month process.

“This plan is not a set of blueprints with a timeline to tear up the road tomorrow, next week, or even in the next few years,” Yokeley responded to that concern. He says this is based on his research and participation in the update effort from the start.

“Some people will have you believe these things to incite fear in the hope of personal political gain.”

Yokeley specifically referred to a comment during the Sept. 1 commissioners’ meeting, when a public hearing on the plan was held ahead of the 3-2 vote.

“I heard someone say[then]that they wouldn’t be surprised if they started tearing up Main Street the next day,” he recalled.

“That was a very misinformed statement,” Yokeley added. “The plan is simply a guiding document – there are always many checks and balances before changes can be made.”

Future commission commissions will have the power to make adjustments to the streetscape once the planning process for each section of the document is implemented, Yokeley said, “including when technical design documents are proposed.”

“In determining which parts of the plan to implement, it is crucial to get input from all stakeholders,” said North Ward Commissioner-candidate Chad Hutchens, also in a similar vein.

“It’s also important to communicate transparently with downtown businesses so that all parties understand the timelines and expectations and have information available to make decisions related to their businesses.”

If he is victorious, Phil Thacker, candidate for commissioner of South Ward, promises willy-nilly there will be no changes.

“I love this city and want to make all decisions after careful consideration,” Thacker noted. “I will maintain an open mind and listen to all of our citizens before making decisions regarding the downtown Mount Airy plan,” if elected.

Mayor Ron Niland agrees:

“Some parts of the plan would need to be revisited, what’s working and what’s not – it’s not an all-or-nothing situation,” Niland said.

“We’ve made constant improvements over the years that have proven beneficial,” he continued. “Funding and implementation (of plan elements) will come at a later date – when that happens we will reconsider what is possible and find ways to minimize the impact on businesses.”

The mayor added, “I have stated that I support the process and goal of a better experience for visitors and residents alike.”

Major changes required?

John Pritchard, who is running for a North Ward City Council seat that Commissioner Jon Cawley is clearing to run for mayor, shares the view of many inner-city advocacy groups – basically why mess with success?

“We already have a much better image and ‘brand’ on Main Street than most similar cities across the country,” noted Pritchard. “This is our own golden goose – unique, original and internationally known.”

Pritchard noted that this view is supported by ever-increasing downtown tourism numbers.

“Let’s keep it in tip-top shape, but certainly not trade it for the same cookie-cutter ideas that are being foisted on many other cities,” noted the North Ward nominee. “It would be like the New Coke disaster many years ago, and they still haven’t fully recovered from that.”

In not supporting the plan, Pritchard claimed that the vast majority of the community held the same view, including at the public hearing in September.

Meanwhile, his opponent Hutchens is hopeful but cautious about the plan.

“I took part in the workshops, read the plan and am interested in the growth of our inner city while retaining our small-town charm,” is his view, which also acknowledges the consequences of its adoption.

“There are legitimate concerns about the plan,” Hutchens agreed.

“Businesses want to make sure their customers aren’t negatively impacted, and taxpayers want to know how the plan is being funded. I agree with these concerns and believe that good leadership can address them.”

“Suggestions” seen as an alternative

“The downtown master plan would be more precisely defined as proposed downtown projects,” said commissioner/mayoral candidate Cawley.

“The proposals came after a group of engaged citizens met over a nine-month period led by Benchmark,” he said.

“I believe the desired goal of these meetings was to improve our inner city. Many of the proposals could eventually achieve that goal.”

Cawley, along with Commissioner Tom Koch, voted against the plan on September 1.

process questioned

Regardless of the merits or shortcomings of the measure itself, Gene Clark – who is running against Thacker for the South Ward commissioner seat – has issues with the development and potential costs of the included recommendations.

“I disagree with the plan for a number of reasons,” Clark commented. “I think it’s a conflict of interest to ask a company that we currently have a contract with (Benchmark) to give us an unbiased assessment of our city plan, as we know they have a vested interest in the plan.”

A secondary concern for Clark is the financial implications.

“I think the plan does not take into account upfront costs or ongoing costs. How do you approve a plan without knowing what the costs are?” he asked.

“Third, what is the return on our investment? I know we’ll never get 100% back. But there has to be justification for spending millions of dollars — how does it increase revenue for the city?”

Cawley also referenced the cost aspect: “A plan usually includes a timeline, the costs involved, and the likely funding for completion.”

Clark also criticized that the vote on the measure took place in the same session as the public hearing, when many citizens opposed the passage.

“It seems that the public hearing is a sham and that the decision has already been made.”

Clark was one of the speakers at the session and said he believed more information was needed before the plan was formalized.

But Thacker, his opponent, is happy with the emergence and points to the opportunity for citizens to get involved early on in a series of workshops.

“There seemed to be a good turnout and a lot of discussion about the plan,” recalled Thacker, one of those in attendance. “While attending these meetings, there was a small amount of negative discussion about the plan, so I assumed we all or most wanted to improve downtown with this plan.”

Now that a group of citizens are unhappy with the majority of commissioners’ decision, Thacker says he needs additional information to better understand where everyone is coming from on this matter.

“We have a group that wants to keep Mount Airy and a group that attended the meetings that worked towards a change.”

leadership a factor?

Cawley believes the ongoing conflict could have been avoided.

“Our current problem isn’t so much the proposed ideas as the reaction to those ideas,” he suggested.

“Those who are for and against the ideas have felt the need to intervene to protect their interests. Our community is divided and the argument was sad to see.”

Cawley lays this at the feet of his opponent, Mayor Niland.

“If I had been mayor, I would have publicly corrected the misinformation spread and avoided the unnecessary voting of the commissioners after the public hearing,” he said.

“The mayor should also have reassured those fearful of losing their livelihoods due to a construction-related disruption that this would not be the case, Cawley says.

“Our mayor’s silence has only exacerbated the issue.”

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