Mount Airy has many positive qualities — including its tourist-destination location, comparatively low cost of living and infrastructure — but other factors, such as a lack of available housing and limited industrial sites, are holding it back economically.
Those are among findings of the Mount Airy Economic Vision Committee, a group made up mostly of local citizens with diverse business and leadership experience which has been studying ways to promote growth for much of this year.
It is one of four “Vision” committees launched last December by Mayor Ron Niland to move the city forward in key areas such as economic development, downtown/small business growth and others.
Chaired by city council members, the groups have given periodic reports on their recommendations, and Thursday night it was the turn of the Economic Vision Committee led by Commissioner Jon Cawley.
The presentation, occurring during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, was fronted by committee members Will Pfitzner and Jay Lara.
“Everyone of this committee was very action-oriented,” said Pfitzner, explaining that its goal was to propose specific moves for city officials to consider. He advised those in attendance that his business background is limited to seven years of start-up experience as the owner of LazerEdge Designs, specializing in handcrafted, customized wooden items.
Lara founded Carport Central, a highly successful local business, in 2014 with his brother Albert.
Others on the committee include Ben Webb, Ben Cooke, Andre Nance, Chris Lumsden, Shannon MacDonald and Martin Collins, the city’s community development director.
“Behind each one of these people and their diverse backgrounds came a love for this community,” Pfitzner said of its discussions. “It always came back to the root of what’s best for the people who live here and for the future of this city.”
Pros and cons
While identifying various pluses for Mount Airy, such as its sense of community and ongoing support programs (which existing and potential businesses might be unaware of), committee members believe economic growth locally is hampered by a lack of housing and financial resources.
Also cited as weaknesses are limited businesses/job opportunities, workforce development and the social media presence of the city.
Comments during Thursday night’s presentation suggested that these items tend to be intertwined, with one having a bearing on the success of others.
This includes the need for more workforce development.
“Everywhere I go, I hear, ‘I don’t have the people to fill the positions that are available with us,’” Lara said of his interactions with other business officials concerning a need also seen at his company — “finding qualified people.”
Providing incentives to both companies and educational institutions is viewed as a solution, including scholarships and the encouraging of more workforce education to increase skills.
Some businesses might not know about incentives now in place to help both them and workers advance, based on the presentation.
Buildings, sites scarce
Along with supporting businesses already here, there are obstacles in the way of attracting new ones to town, the committee found, including a scarce property inventory.
“If I was a business or corporation wanting to move to Mount Airy, what is the first thing that I would look at?” Lara said in summing up a consensus question by committee members. “Where am I going to move my staff and my office to?”
The lack of available buildings and construction sites is a major concern.
In terms of city-owned industrial parks, two were discussed Thursday night, Westwood Industrial Park and Piedmont Triad West Corporate Park.
Although Westwood boasts 103 available acres, “it is just land,” said Lara.
Prospects interested in relocating to Mount Airy face challenges with such undeveloped property. “That’s one thing we can look at,” Lara said, mentioning grading work to have spaces level and make construction less of an issue there.
Piedmont Triad West, located at the southern end of town in the vicinity of Sheetz, has a couple of graded tracts vacant, but those are more suited for small or medium-size entities rather than larger manufacturers, Lara said.
Having other parks “ready and available” should be a goal of local officials in the future, he added while acknowledging that open land is limited for both industry and housing — especially within the existing city limits.
“Property was a big issue that we saw on the committee.”
An incoming company or one already here that brings in personnel from elsewhere also wants to make sure safe and affordable housing awaits those employees, it was pointed out during the presentation.
“Right now as a company we have to actually purchase homes here to bring our people in to work,” Lara said of Carport Central.
“You wouldn’t think of a business having to actually buy property to bring their employees here from other states to work or to train.”
That is something Carport Central has in common with Northern Regional Hospital, Lara said, apparently learned through the presence of Lumsden, the hospital’s president and CEO, on the Vision committee. The hospital also is having to buy condominiums and other homes for its incoming doctors and nurses, Lara related.
“Housing is definitely something that we as a community need to look at,” he said of its role in economic development.
A short-term action plan identified by the committee calls for better utilizing the city’s inventory of industrial parks and housing and finding ways to solve the shortage of the latter.
Permanent committee proposed
The Mount Airy Economic Vision Committee believes a definition of economic success should be identified for the city and plans assembled to achieve that by involving the community “extensively” and working with existing groups.
An ultimate goal for economic success should be happiness, according to the presentation.
Members of the Vision committee, which is temporary in nature, also believe city officials should appoint a permanent Economic Development Committee to aid this mission.
Commissioner Cawley said later in the meeting that he was “very encouraged” by the work of the Vision group and hopes the city council will establish the standing committee it mentioned.
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