Thirteen candidates are seeking four different council seats in Mount Airy, but they share some common ground including seeing a need for affordable housing and more economic development/jobs locally.
“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 Jon Cawley, who is running for mayor.
That sentiment was echoed by many of the 13 office seekers gathered Monday night on the stage of the Historic Earle Theater and Old-Time Music Heritage downtown Hall for a meet-the-candidates event. It drew a crowd to the auditorium that is mostly a venue for movies and musical performances.
Not only does the city need affordable housing, at-large council candidate Tonda Phillips said from the perspective of a real estate professional, but help for those who aren’t able to acquire a home at all.
“The city also should support homeless shelters,” Phillips said during the forum co-sponsored by the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce and the group Mount Airy Downtown Inc.
Further concerns about housing were expressed by the present 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 a switcheroo agreed to by both.
Zalescik referred to the fact that the city government owns nearly 1,000 acres of property, both within and outside the municipality. “Yes, the city has a lot of land,” he said, “and we need to use some of that land for housing young people.”
The format for Monday night’s candidates — billed as an introduction of them to voters — differed from others in which office seekers have responded to prepared questions on relevant issues along with ones from audience members.
Each was simply given four minutes to detail his or her background and experience in addition to campaign platforms/visions for Mount Airy, the ways in which each believes the city is on the right path and the ways it is on the wrong path.
Candidates were grouped by the respective offices at stake in the city’s non-partisan election this year, venturing one by one to a podium to make their case to vote artisan.
• Along with Cawley, the mayoral candidates include Ron Niland, the man now holding that post, and Teresa Lewis, a former at-large commissioner.
• 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 has served on the school board.
• Joining Yokeley and Phillips in the at-large race is formerly 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 square off in the November general election.
“Status quo must go”
Most of them had good things to say about the present condition of Mount Airy as it relates to city government decisions. These include its recreation 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 a master plan update.
Yet during his time at the podium, Clark pointed to the elephant in the room: The fact that 13 people are running for public office (believed to be a record for an election in Mount Airy) means citizens want change.
“The status quo has got to go,” Clark added.
He has long been a critic of city government efforts to redevelop former Spencer’s textile mill property it bought in 2014, which have been shaky at times — what Clark referred to Monday night as “boondoggles we’ve had in the last few years.”
The South Ward candidate was among others mentioning a need for better-paying employment opportunities in town.
They included Pritchard, who cited Mount Airy’s lack of “solid real jobs (that) give our young people the confidence to marry, buy a home and raise a family” and said he would vote to “go all out for new full-time jobs ” locally.
“That keeps young people here and attracts new people.”
Pritchard framed his content around the theme of “what about us?” in terms of steps the city government should be taking to help the people.
He says other smaller communities in North Carolina have managed to attract major 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 a labor force.
“I say head to Winston about 7 am and see our workforce leaving town.”
Pritchard said the city should make some of its land available for businesses by giving it to them at discount prices or even free, arguing that Mount Airy’s population must grow to avoid straining existing citizens.
Leiva, one of Pritchard’s opponents, also referred to the jobs issue in her comments, especially as it relates to younger people leaving town due to lack of opportunities.
Though she has deep roots in the community, Leiva moved away after graduating from college due to a lack of activities for young people 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 seek opportunities to provide new jobs.”
Mayoral candidate Lewis also mentioned a need for economic-development efforts along with more affordable housing.
“If I am elected mayor, I will be an agent of change,” said the longtime local businesswoman who in 1987 founded what is now the WorkForce Unlimited staffing agency employing thousands of people in three states.
Cawley also said the mayor can play a key role in luring new business by being the face of the community.
“Somebody has to tell the story — the story of what Mount Airy is — I think that’s what the job of the mayor is,” he remarked.
“We have a story to tell,” Niland concurred, also referring to plans to address economic development through a shell building concept. “I have the energy and drive to tell our story.”
He further said that downtown housing and entertainment are helping to attract the “national talent” companies seek.
Property tax concerns
Multiple candidates expressed concerns about Mount Airy’s property tax rate, which is now 60 cents per $100 of assessed valuation due to a 25% increase approved in 2018, up from 48 cents.
“The top of the list, of course, is we need to reduce taxes,” Thacker said of his main goals if elected.
Cochran, as a former commissioner and mayor, says she has experience in doing just that,
“Everybody talks about cutting taxes — we actually did it,” Cochran said of how city officials slashed the rate from 63 to 48 cents during her tenure.
The former mayor also mentioned her efforts to bring jobs to town, including making a trip to Arkansas in a successful venture to lure a company that is one of the top local employers.
Zalescik expressed a desire to keep taxes low while seeking grants and other outside funding sources to support growth and not standing in the way of progress.
Some of the candidates used their time to highlight additional concerns, including Yokeley, whose goals encompass a need to improve the city’s aging water-sewer infrastructure, as do those of Phillips, and provide support for the police and fire departments.
“I am not running against anything or anybody,” Yokeley said, but to help Mount Airy.
In addition to concerns about police and fire operations, which are both understaffed, Phillips referred to the need to attack a related problem, drug abuse.
The Rotary Club of Mount Airy, of which she is president, has launched initiatives targeting that problem, she said. “This is just the beginning — we also can do more.”
Some candidates mainly expressed what they would bring to the table as elected officials.
Refvem said one of the main attributes she can offer is the ability to listen to citizens, based on her work as a licensed counselor for both youths and adults:
“What do you care about — what keeps you up at night?”
“I’m seeking this office because I have a passion for helping others,” said Hutchens, who along with previously serving on the Mount Airy Board of Education is a sergeant with the Surry County’s Sheriff’s Office involved with its school resource officer program.
“Community service should be done for the right reasons,” he commented in remarks directed toward citizens. “The bottom line is I care about Mount Airy and I care about working for you.”