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More than Mayberry 

by Jessica Wells, Communications Specialist

Since attending the University of North Carolina School of Government’s Essentials of Economic development course in 2012, Mount Airy Mayor Pro Tem Steve Yokeley has been busy applying what he learned. He was appointed chair of the Redevelopment Commission last year and is working on redeveloping the 10-acre Spencer Mill site, which previously housed Spencer’s Inc., a children’s sleepwear manufacturer.

Spencer Mill was one of Mount Airy’s largest employers and has been vacant since 2007. The town hopes to attract new investors to develop the site as a public-private partnership.

“Before, I thought the city would have to be more involved in financing of potential projects, but I learned in the course that even though the city may be able to help, it’s private developers that will be instrumental in any redevelopment,” Yokeley said. “I didn’t know anything about public-private partnerships at the time, and I learned a lot about how they work and how useful they can be for both parties.”

When complete, he said the town hopes to have a hotel, small event space, arts center and incubators for entrepreneurs so they have a place to work and interact with others who also have the entrepreneurial spirit.

Essentials of Economic Development is designed to help local officials understand the fundamentals of economic development in the current economic climate. The workshop helps participants understand what is required to attract and support private investment in their communities.

Local elected officials, administrators, and other professionals in economic development are encouraged to attend to examine various economic development strategies and consider how local governments in partnership with the nonprofit and private sectors, can help facilitate the process of creating jobs and wealth.

“It’s good for all elected officials regardless of experience because you are always learning. I learn  something new every day,” Yokeley said. “It’s just as important, or maybe more important, for elected officials who have been in office for a long time to get new ideas.”

For Mount Airy, redevelopment of abandoned mill properties is key. According to Yokeley, the town lost more than 10,000 jobs since the 90s in the textile, furniture and manufacturing industries.

“Things are getting better -- slowly, but things are getting better,” Yokeley said. “It’s because of entrepreneurs that are coming in with great new ideas. We’re trying to find new ways to help them too.”

For example, when Henry Dunn Furniture went out of business, Shenandoah Furniture moved in and has hired a few new employees at a time. Awesome Products, a cleaning product manufacturer, purchased a local building for its proximity to an ample supply of water.

“Having the right facility for the right company at the right time is important – it’s partly luck, but part is trying to make sure that the companies know what facilities are available,” Yokeley said.

Tax credits for mill redevelopment and historic preservation have helped Mount Airy attract new  businesses. In addition, downtown businesses are in the municipal service district making them eligible for façade grants and funds for parking construction.

Governor Pat McCrory joined North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz in Mount Airy in March as part of her statewide tour promoting the historic preservation tax credits. The  meeting took place at a recent beneficiary of the tax credits McArthur’s on Main, a café and store located in an 1895 building.

During the tour, Kluttz hopes to garner enough support to convince the General Assembly to reinstate the tax credits that expired Dec. 31.

According to an article in the Mount Airy News, buildings in downtown Mount Airy are at 100 percent occupancy after a period of decline during the industry closings.

“Mount Airy is doing a tremendous job, but it’s not just Mount Airy’s responsibility — the buildings in North Carolina are part of North Carolina’s story,” Kluttz said.

The town and Merchants on Main have focused on the downtown area for decades to ensure it would remain the primary shopping area as opposed to shopping malls. Yokeley said tourists come to Main Street not just for “Mayberry”, but for the shops, restaurants, craft stores and other businesses – many of which that have taken advantage of the tax credits.

“For small cities and towns like Mount Airy, the loss of the historic preservation tax credits is going to be devastating. We depend on the private developers and investors to provide new uses for obsolete  historic buildings,” Yokeley said. “They can have many more years of useful life if they are renovated, but we think it’s going to be very difficult to attract these developers if the historic preservation tax credits are not available.”

Some companies have remained; Renfro, for instance, dates back to 1892. While it no longer  manufactures in North Carolina, the company still retains a presence with corporate offices.

“They’ve [revised their] strategy and focus and have been very successful,” Yokeley said. “I do think manufacturing will be important to Mount Airy in the future, but it will be a different kind of manufacturing.”

He said he believes the future of manufacturing will be much more specialized: jobs will be fewer and require an in-depth knowledge of computers.

“In the Essentials course, we also learned how important reeducation of employees is so that they are able to work the jobs that are available or will be available in the future,” he said.

He said the community college has been instrumental in providing training for specialized manufacturing machinery. When a new company came in that makes parts for heavy equipment, the college was able to partner with the company to train specialized welders.

As the town continues to work on the Spencer Mill redevelopment, Yokeley said he sees a lot of value in attending the Essentials of Economic Development course – maybe even multiple times to stay abreast of changes.

“We get information daily about what the state legislature might do, and I think it’s really important that people do go more than once if they are planning big projects like we are,” he said. “We rely on the School of Government for lots of different things, and I think they are so important for the future of economic development and strength of North Carolina. I think they’ve made a big impact on the economy in the whole state.”