Thirteen candidates are seeking four different council seats in Mount Airy, but they share common ground, including the need for affordable housing and more local economic development/jobs.
“Housing is a concern,” said Joanna Refvem, one of four people vying for a North Ward seat on the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, now held by mayoral candidate Jon Cawley.
That sentiment was echoed by many of the 13 job seekers who gathered on stage Monday night at the Historic Earle Theater and Old-Time Music Heritage Hall downtown for a meet-the-candidates event. He drew a crowd to the auditorium which is primarily a location for filming movies and musical performances.
Not only does the city need affordable housing, said General Council candidate Tonda Phillips, from the perspective of a real estate professional, but also help for those who are unable to afford it at all. buying a house.
“The city should also support homeless shelters,” Phillips said at the forum co-sponsored by the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce and Mount Airy Downtown Inc.
Further housing concerns have been voiced by current At-Large Commissioner Joe Zalescik, who is running for the South Ward seat of longtime incumbent Steve Yokeley, who is campaigning for Zalescik’s post as part of of a switcheroo accepted by both.
Zalescik referred to the fact that the city government owns nearly 1,000 acres of property, both inside and outside the municipality. “Yes, the city has a lot of land,” he said, “and we have to use some of that land to house the young people.”
The format for Monday night’s candidates – presented as an introduction of them to voters – differed from others in which job seekers answered prepared questions on relevant issues as well as those from members of the public.
Each simply had four minutes to detail their background and experience in addition to campaign platforms/visions for Mount Airy, how each thinks the town is on the right track and how it is on the wrong track .
The candidates were grouped by the respective offices at stake in the city’s nonpartisan election this year, venturing one by one to a podium to make their case to voters.
• Along with Cawley, the mayoral candidates include Ron Niland, the man who now holds the position, and Teresa Lewis, a former Commissioner General.
• Running against Refvem in the North Ward are John Pritchard and two former city school board members, Teresa Davis Leiva and Chad Hutchens.
• The South Ward candidates, along with Zalescik, are Gene Clark and Phil Thacker, who also served on the school board.
• Joining Yokeley and Phillips in the overall race is former twice-elected mayor Deborah Cochran.
Monday night’s rally was a prelude to a May 17 primary that will narrow the field to two candidates for each position who will face off in November’s general election.
“The status quo must go”
Most of them had good things to say about the current state of Mount Airy as it relates to city government decisions. These include its recreational programs and facilities such as the Granite City Greenway, arts and cultural offerings and a thriving downtown targeted for efforts to make it more pedestrian-friendly through an update to the master plan.
Yet during his time on the podium, Clark pointed to the elephant in the room: 13 people running for office (considered a record for a Mount Airy election) means citizens want change .
“The status quo has to go,” Clark added.
He has long been critical of the city government’s efforts to redevelop the former Spencer textile mill property he bought in 2014, which has at times been shaky – what Clark called Monday night “boondoggles that we’ve had in recent years.”
The candidate from the southern district mentioned, among other things, the need for better paid job opportunities in the city.
They included Pritchard, who cited the lack of “real solid jobs (that) give our young people the confidence to get married, buy a house and raise a family” and said he would vote to “do everything for new full-time jobs”. ” locally.
“It keeps young people here and attracts new people.”
Pritchard has framed his content around the theme “what about us? in terms of what the city government should do to help people.
He says other small communities in North Carolina have been successful in attracting big economic development projects, including China Grove where Macy’s is building a distribution center and creating 2,800 jobs.
Pritchard attacked claims that this community lacks proper buildings for businesses and labor.
“I say get to Winston around 7 a.m. and see our staff leave town.”
Pritchard said the city should make some of its land available to businesses by giving it to them at discounted prices or even for free, arguing that Mount Airy’s population must grow to avoid overburdening existing citizens.
Leiva, one of Pritchard’s opponents, also brought up the issue of employment in her comments, particularly regarding young people leaving town due to lack of opportunities.
Although she has deep roots in the community, Leiva moved away after graduating from college due to a lack of youth activities, but later returned.
Although that has changed, more such activities are needed, said Leiva, who believes local officials should focus on economic development.
Thacker agreed. “I think we have to look for opportunities to create new jobs.”
Mayoral candidate Lewis also mentioned the need for economic development efforts as well as more affordable housing.
“If elected mayor, I will be an agent of change,” said the longtime local businesswoman who in 1987 founded what is now recruitment agency WorkForce Unlimited which employs thousands. in three states.
Cawley also said the mayor can play a key role in attracting new business by being the face of the community.
“Someone has to tell the story – the story of what Mount Airy is – I think that’s the mayor’s job,” he remarked.
“We have a story to tell,” Niland confirmed, also referring to plans to address economic development through a clamshell construction concept. “I have the energy and the drive to tell our story.”
He further said that downtown housing and entertainment helps attract “domestic talent” sought by businesses.
Property Tax Concerns
Several candidates have raised concerns about Mount Airy’s property tax rate, which is now 60 cents per $100 of property assessment due to a 25% increase approved in 2018 from 48 cents previously.
“Top of the list, of course, is that we need to cut taxes,” Thacker said of his main goals if elected.
Cochran, as a former commissioner and mayor, says she has experience in this area,
“Everybody talks about cutting taxes — we did it,” Cochran said of how city officials cut the rate from 63 cents to 48 cents during his tenure.
The former mayor also mentioned her efforts to bring jobs to the city, including traveling to Arkansas as part of a successful venture to attract a company that is one of the top local employers.
Zalescik expressed a desire to keep taxes low while seeking grants and other outside sources of funding to support growth and not impede progress.
Some of the candidates used their time to highlight other concerns, including Yokeley, whose goals include the need to improve the city’s aging sewage and water infrastructure, much like Phillips’, and provide support for police and fire departments.
“I’m not racing against anything or anyone,” Yokeley said, but to help Mount Airy.
Along with concerns about police and fire operations, both of which are understaffed, Phillips spoke of the need to tackle a related issue, drug addiction.
The Rotary Club of Mount Airy, of which she is president, has launched initiatives targeting this issue, she said. “This is just the start – we can do more too.”
Some candidates mostly expressed what they would bring to the table as elected officials.
Refvem said that one of the main qualities she can offer is the ability to listen to citizens, based on her work as a licensed counselor for young people and adults:
“What interests you – what keeps you up at night?”
“I seek out this office because I have a passion for helping others,” said Hutchens, who, in addition to serving on the Mount Airy School Board, is a sergeant in the Surry County Sheriff’s Office involved in the its school resource officer program.
“Community service should be done for the right reasons,” he commented in remarks to citizens. “The main thing is that I care about Mount Airy and I care about working for you.”