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Dramatic changes – possibly including two-way traffic – could be in store for downtown Mount Airy in the wake of a presentation to city officials about a proposed master plan for the central business district.
It came after concerns were raised during an October 21 meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners. He was then asked to allocate $ 75,000 for the plan – actually an upgrade of an earlier one in 2004 – to be done by a planning firm already working for council, Benchmark CMR.
Board members Jon Cawley and Tom Koch opposed that action, which was part of a consensus program that typically contained routine issues approved with a rubber stamp vote without discussion.
Their concerns led to the issue of the centre’s master plan being discussed at length on 21 October with no funding action being taken. The commissioners agreed by consensus to suspend the matter until a Benchmark representative gave an in-depth presentation, which took place at their first meeting in November last Thursday.
Benchmark President Jason Epley was on hand to explain how the company could help improve the downtown area through the modernized master plan, which again led to no funding decisions on the proposal.
Since 2011, the Charlotte-based firm has provided planning services to Mount Airy resulting from a privatization move, an agreement that includes two Benchmark employees working within the municipal building.
On October 21, Commissioner Cawley questioned Benchmark’s payment for the downtown project, when it already receives $ 145,000 annually to serve the city government on a contract basis.
A related concern raised then concerned Benchmark’s staff who would work on the master plan, namely the two employees stationed here whose current businesses may suffer according to Cawley. He also wondered if this could be incorporated into the company’s normal course of work without having to pay tens of thousands of dollars more.
Epley addressed one of these concerns during his presentation at the last meeting, saying that the senior staff are ready to tackle the master plan task.
The project would be co-managed by Epley and another head of the Downtown Planning Team, Dan Douglas. Local employees, city planning director Andy Goodall and Ben Barcroft, are also listed as team members.
Plan deemed necessary
Advocates said the updated master plan is needed to drive future downtown investments, both public and private, in a cost-effective way, as well as identifying development opportunities; public parking solutions; and possible changes to traffic flow such as removing traffic lights along North Main Street and making it two-way rather than one-way.
The burying of overhead power lines for aesthetic reasons is among other considerations.
Epley pointed out that downtown Mount Airy is already a lively place full of people, based on her observations while dining there, but that it’s important to think ahead and not rest on present laurels.
“I think it’s a great time to come up with a master plan,” he said. Although numerous improvements have been made to the center over the years, some sections are in need of renovation, according to the company’s president.
Epley’s approximately 30-minute visual / verbal presentation included photographs of downtown areas in other cities that have been transformed through the efforts of Benchmark, such as Concord; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; and Suffolk, Virginia.
The Concord situation, for example, included an urban plan, a new residential development, a parking lot and the modernization of the pedestrian crossing, among others.
Images of that city included widened sidewalks and outdoor dining tables, an earlier idea for downtown Mount Airy that had limited success.
The Benchmark official’s presentation was welcomed by comments from commissioners, including Joe Zalescik, who suggested questioning city center entrepreneurs on the issue of one-way traffic (currently in place) versus two-way traffic.
Cawley also asked Epley if he thinks there is enough space in the center of Mount Airy to widen the streets.
“Are there any particular areas where it could be done? Sure, “Epley replied, but others may not be suitable. Many factors need to be considered, the Benchmark official added.
The discussion then shifted to the idea of burying overhead power lines downtown and whether the improvements would make that project easier.
“It’s never easy to bury power lines,” Epley replied. However, the best time to pursue this goal would have been when major changes occurred in the road landscape in general, he said. “You will still have things destroyed.”
Epley said updating the master plan would involve the help of a “central city team” and project steering committee and would include listening sessions with stakeholders. Small group discussions are also planned to arrive at the final results to be presented to the Commissioners.
“We think it will take nine months to do all of this,” Epley said.
While the discussion at the October meeting included a $ 67,000 price tag for Benchmark’s plan update, an amendment to the budget ordinance that was on the consensus agenda for that session listed the cost at $ 75,000.
No explanation was given for the difference.
With no funding action taken last week, this should be considered at a later meeting.
Board members voted 3-2 on October 7 to allocate $ 295,000 in municipal revenue to a range of projects to benefit the Central Business District, costing a total of $ 592,000, with the Mount Airy Downtown Inc. group having agreed to provide $ 297,000.
At the top of the list was the updated master plan.
Despite the vote to allocate the municipal dollars, there have been no budget amendments to actually provide the money for the individual components.
Cawley and Koch, the two dissidents in the October 7 vote, said the city’s funding commitment is premature at this point, as it is not known exactly where the $ 295,000 will come from.
One possible source is federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act provided by the city, which is pending guidance on the permitted uses of that money. Another possible source is a municipal surplus fund.