Thirteen candidates are seeking four different Mount Airy council seats, but they share some common ground, including the need for affordable housing and more local economic development/jobs.
“Housing is a problem,” said Joanna Refvem, one of four people vying for a seat in North Ward on Mount Airy’s Board of Commissioners, now held by Jon Cawley, who is running for mayor.
That sentiment was shared by many of the 13 office seekers who gathered on the stage at the Historic Earle Theater and the downtown Old-Time Music Heritage Hall on Monday night to meet the candidates. It drew a crowd to the auditorium, which is primarily a venue for film and musical performances.
The city not only needs affordable housing, said Tonda Phillips, the city council nominee, but also help for those who are completely unable to purchase a home.
“The city should also support homeless shelters,” Phillips said during the forum, which was co-sponsored by the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce and the Mount Airy Downtown Inc. group.
Further concerns about housing have been raised by current At-Large Commissioner Joe Zalescik, who is running for the South Ward seat of long-time incumbent Steve Yokeley, who is running for Zalescik’s post as part of a switcheroo agreed by both.
Zalescik pointed to the fact that the municipality owns nearly 1,000 acres of land, both inside and outside the municipality. “Yes, the city has a lot of land,” he said, “and we need to use part of that land to house young people.”
The format for Monday night’s candidates – billed as an introduction to voters – differed from others in which incumbents responded to prepared questions on relevant issues alongside those from viewers.
Everyone was simply given four minutes to share his or her background and experiences, in addition to campaign platforms/visions for Mount Airy, the way everyone believes the city is on the right track and the way like she’s on the wrong track.
The candidates were grouped according to the offices at stake in the city’s bipartisan elections that year and, one at a time, ventured onto a podium to present their arguments to voters.
• In addition to Cawley, candidates for mayor include Ron Niland, the man who now holds the office, 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, alongside Zalescik, are Gene Clark and Phil Thacker, who also served on the school board.
• Joining Yokeley and Phillips in the race for publicity is former twice-elected Mayor Deborah Cochran.
Monday night’s gathering was a prelude to a May 17 primary that will narrow the field to two candidates for each office who will run in November’s general election.
“The status quo has to go”
Most of them had good things to say about the current state of Mount Airy in terms of city government decisions. These include recreational programs and facilities such as the Granite City Greenway, arts and culture offerings, and a thriving downtown area that will be made more pedestrian-friendly through a master plan update.
But during his time on the podium, Clark pointed to the elephant in the room: The fact that 13 people are running for public office (which is believed to be a record for a Mount Airy election) means that citizens want change.
“The status quo needs to go,” Clark added.
He has long been a critic of the city government’s efforts to rehabilitate Spencer’s former textile factory, bought in 2014, which has been shaky at times – what Clark described on Monday night as “the boondoggles we’ve had for the last few years”.
The South Ward candidate mentioned, among other things, the need for better paying job opportunities in the city.
Among them was Pritchard, who cited Mount Airy’s lack of “solid, real jobs (that give our young people the confidence to get married, buy a home and raise a family)” and said he will vote to ” to do everything for new full-time jobs ” locally.
“It keeps young people here and attracts new people.”
Pritchard has designed his content around the theme “What about us?” regarding the steps the city government should take to help the people.
He says other smaller communities in North Carolina have managed to attract large 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 suitable buildings for businesses and workers.
“I say drive to Winston around 7 a.m. and see our workforce leave town.”
Pritchard said the city should make some of its land available to businesses by giving it to them at discounted rates or even for free, arguing that Mount Airy’s population needed to grow to avoid a burden on existing citizens.
Leiva, one of Pritchard’s opponents, also pointed to the employment issue in her comments, particularly in relation to younger people leaving the city for lack of opportunities.
Despite being deeply involved in the community, Leiva moved away after college due to a lack of youth activities, but later returned.
While that has changed, more such activities are needed, said Leiva, who believes local officials should focus on economic development.
Thacker agreed. “I think we need to look at ways to create new jobs.”
Mayoral candidate Lewis also mentioned the need for economic development efforts as well as more affordable housing.
“If I’m elected mayor, I will be an agent of change,” said the longtime local businesswoman, who founded what is now WorkForce Unlimited in 1987, which employs thousands of people across three states.
Cawley also said the mayor can play a key role in attracting new business by being the face of the community.
“Somebody has to tell the story — the story of Mount Airy — I think that’s the mayor’s job,” he noted.
“We have a story to tell,” agreed Niland, also pointing to plans to address economic development through a shell concept. “I have the energy and drive to tell our story.”
He went on to say that downtown housing and entertainment help attract the businesses looking for “national talent.”
property tax issues
Several candidates raised concerns about Mount Airy’s property tax rate, which is now 60 cents per $100 of estimated valuation due to a 25% increase approved in 2018 from 48 cents.
“At the top of the list, of course, is that we need to lower taxes,” Thacker said of his main goals if elected.
Cochran says that as a former commissioner and mayor, she has experience doing just that
“Everybody’s talking about tax cuts — we actually did it,” Cochran said of how city officials cut the tax rate from 63 cents to 48 cents during their tenure.
The former mayor also mentioned her efforts to bring jobs to the city, including a trip to Arkansas at a successful company 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 external sources of finance to support growth and not stand in the way of progress.
Some of the candidates took their time to highlight additional concerns, including Yokeley, whose goals include the need to improve the city’s aging water and sanitation infrastructure, as Phillips is doing, and to support police and fire departments.
“I’m not competing against anything or anyone,” Yokeley said, but to help Mount Airy.
In addition to concerns about the police and fire departments, both of which are understaffed, Phillips cited the need to address a related problem, substance abuse.
The Rotary Club of Mount Airy, of which she is president, has launched initiatives aimed at addressing this issue, she said. “This is just the beginning – there is still more we can do.”
Some candidates expressed primarily what they would bring to the table as elected officials.
Refvem said that one of the most important qualities she can offer is the ability to listen to citizens, based on her work as a licensed youth and adult counselor:
“What interests you – what keeps you up at night?”
“I seek this position because I am passionate about helping others,” said Hutchens, who, in addition to his previous service on the Mount Airy Board of Education, is a sergeant in the Surry County Sheriff’s Office, which is involved in the school resource officer program.
“Community service should be done for the right reasons,” he commented in a remark addressed to citizens. “The bottom line is that I care about Mount Airy and I care about working for you.”