To build or not to build? If you build, how will you pay for it? And how will you maintain the Town of Mount Airy’s charm?
Downtown needs to be freshened up. What are your ideas?
Those are the types of citizen-submitted questions the three candidates running in Mount Airy’s first special election faced at a candidate forum — broadcast by the Community Media Center — Thursday night, Aug. 16.
The candidates, planning commission members Dr. Scott Sirchio and Patty Washabaugh and recent South Carroll High School graduate Matt McDonough, used the occasion to convince town residents they were the right person to serve on the council for the three years remaining in former councilman Scott Strong’s term. Strong resigned, effective July 9, part-way through his second term after accepting a job in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
As candidates offered their vision for revitalizing Main Street, each talked about vacant buildings, like the empty First National Bank building. “What in the world is keeping [the town] from converting the bank building to a useful purpose?” one question probed.
Well, it’s complicated, Sirchio and Washabaugh explained in their answers. Planning and zoning can be restrictive, and town officials must work with developers and property owners, they said. But something must be done, both planning commission members agreed.
“I’ve been here for 17 years and that building has been empty for 17 years,” said McDonough, fresh out of high school and ready to study business at Carroll Community College in the fall. “We’ve got to put something in that building, business … anything that can help the town.”
Revitalizing the heart of town involves more than one vacant bank. Candidates touched on power lines, parking, lack of natural gas lines hindering Main Street restaurants, creating conditions for existing business to thrive.
“The wires are in the air or underground,” Sirchio said. “Currently they’re in the air, so the option is … they go underground.”
All three agreed the wires are unsightly.
However, Washabaugh said other issues might take precedence. She’s all for looking into it, as long as council proceeded with caution. It must consider the businesses and how they’d be affected by the process: “I know when we put the sidewalks in [on Main Street] ... a lot of the businesses were upset because it directly impacted their businesses negatively.”
But, she added: “I think it will make a much better downtown area, a much more beautiful downtown area.”
Sirchio referenced one section of Main Street near the historic flat-iron building where the telephone poles force pedestrians into traffic — there’s no room on the sidewalk.
“It’s a safety concern, it has to be changed,” said McDonough, who cited safety as a top priority all night.
Sirchio and Washabaugh remained realistic: It has to be cost justifiable for Mount Airy.
Another Main Street-related question asked candidates whether they would consider case-by-case home rezoning.
“They’re historic,” McDonough said, “I want people to live on Main Street ... to feel comfortable on Main Street. That’s what a small town is about: people living on Main Street.”
Washabaugh, an experienced member of the planning commission, suggested a healthy mix of residential and commercially zoned property. However, there are going to be exceptions, and she’d be amenable to listening if it’s brought to council or the planning commission.
Sirchio chose to defer to the still-developing Downtown Master Plan — something he did throughout the evening. He urged citizens to get involved, make their stamp, to help the experts craft the model, Sirchio said. Then, “let’s stick to our plan.”
One question deviated from the Main Street-heavy forum. Candidates were asked whether they’d support medical marijuana dispensaries in town.
“I’m very against marijuana altogether,” McDonough told the audience, establishing a hardline stance.
“I do understand that it does help people and I know that’s kind of a new thing in Maryland,” he said. “But I would be opposed to it because I want our community to be safe.”
Washabaugh didn’t say yes or no, deferring instead to the zoning conundrum that would ensue if a dispensary were to be proposed and approved.
“I would be very particular about making sure it would be in a commercial zone,” she said. “We have to be very careful about where it zoned in our town.”
Sirchio offered an analogy.
“It’s a medical marijuana dispensary, so that means it would be just like if you went over to CVS,” he said. “They have restrictive opioids in CVS and they’re controlled.”
But, he concluded, a dispensary is superfluous to the small town’s needs.
After dodging the marijuana curveball and explaining how they envision development, candidates were prompted to explain how Mount Airy would pay for the plans, like advancing infrastructure. These large-scale projects come with a hefty cost, after all.
Washabaugh talked about working with developers. The town and developers have an interest in better common facilities, so it’s likely they could find a way to share the cost. She also suggested soliciting grant money for projects like restoring the decrepit flat-iron building, if the town chooses to keep it.
Sometimes, like in the case of the Main Street restaurants without natural gas connection, businesses would penny up and pay for the project entirely, Sirchio said. “BGE offered to run the gas line … to the downtown area because they know once it gets there they’re going to make the money back with the gas they sell to the restaurants and the occupants of our vacant buildings.”
If the town shows a commitment to a robust, albeit sustainable, growth in its master plan, “we will have our developers knocking on our back door saying ‘Hey, we want in,’ ” Sirchio said.
McDonough piggy-backed his opponents’ points: Work with developers, he said, seek grants.
“My last resort is raising taxes, I do not want to raise taxes,” McDonough concluded.
Candidates proceeded to debate details. They detailed the town’s biggest strengths and weaknesses.
The small town charm is Mount Airy’s biggest strength, “I really want to keep it,” McDonough said. “Our biggest weakness is water. We’ve got to fix the water issue.”
But the water issue is a blessing in disguise, Washabaugh said. “It keeps slow growth.”
The biggest strength, Sirchio said, is the people. “Our opportunities for Mount Airy are only at the beginning.”
All three candidates made clear their love for the town of just under 10,000 residents. All wanted improvements, development. But not at the cost of Mount Airy — not just any small town.
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It’s a town with history and pride, Washabaugh said: “It’s not anywhere USA.”