From recruiting a new movie theater to building public restrooms, the Marion City Council took additional steps Tuesday to further improve and develop the downtown. City officials also made rules more flexible for sidewalk cafes.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the City Council held a public hearing about an ordinance to extend Marion’s Downtown Municipal Service District (MSD) to include the former West Rock property along West Henderson and Burgin streets. This large commercial building, which was on the real estate market for a long time, is now owned by Gurley Storage, LLC.
City Manager Bob Boyette said council first established the district in 1989 to include most of the commercial downtown area. It was done as a way to raise revenue to support downtown development. Between 1989 and about 1999, the city charged an additional tax on properties in the MSD. This tax was eliminated about 1999 and downtown development programs were funded through the city's General Fund.
More recently, local officials have looked at how to use the former West Rock building for downtown development, including a movie theater. They are working with state experts on how to do this and that is how the Municipal Service District came into play.
Boyette and County Manager Ashley Wooten recently talked with the director of the UNC School of Government’s Development Finance Initiative (DFI) about looking at development opportunities in Marion, particularly movie theater recruitment.
DFI Director Michael Lemanski told Boyette and Wooten the program could likely look at overall development opportunities, which could potentially include a movie theater. However, Boyette said Lemanski informed him and Wooten “that recruiting a movie theater is desired by almost every small city and town in North Carolina and movie theaters are one of the most difficult businesses to attract to a smaller community.”
Boyette said Tuesday that Lemanski stated the program works almost exclusively in downtown areas and that properties generally need to be part of an MSD to be part of the study. The city manager added Lemanski was “intrigued by the recent purchase of the former West Rock property by Gurley Storage and how it could be further developed.” Based on this discussion, city officials started the process of adding the former West Rock property to the MSD.
The MSD extension will become final with the approval of second reading of the ordinance during the next City Council meeting on Feb. 21, with the extension taking effect on July 1.
Boyette said the city has no intentions to charge a tax in the MSD area but just to use the MSD for the potential DFI study. He added he has talked with property owner Allen Gurley about this and that Gurley doesn’t have a problem with it.
In another effort, council agreed to move forward with constructing the public restrooms at the Tailgate Market.
Last year, Marion got more than $94,000 in grant money from the state for downtown revitalization. In September, council approved several projects for the downtown revitalization effort. These projects including using $10,000 for downtown business exterior improvement grants with the rest going towards building public restrooms at the Tailgate Market, building public restrooms and an events shelter at the gazebo park on North Main. They also agreed to use this for the South Main Street parking lot.
Boyette said almost all of the businesses approved for the exterior improvements grant will complete their projects by the deadline of March 1. There is a handful that may not be done in time though.
Council heard from Public Works Director Brant Sikes about the cost of the parking lot, the restrooms and shelter projects, which came in more expensive than originally expected.
Council approved the construction of the public restrooms at the Tailgate Market shelter on West Henderson Street, even though the estimate came in higher than planned.
City officials approved the construction of the restrooms by England Builders for the low bid of $35,189. This amount exceeded the portion of the grant money that was set aside. Council agreed to use some money from the fund balance to get it done.
After a discussion, council approved the completion of the South Main Street parking lot, which is a public-private partnership with Westmoreland Funeral Home. The funeral home owns the parking lot and is paying for the building demolition, the engineering and grading work, the construction of a retaining wall and the paving.
In return, the city will pay for decorative constructing of a side-walk, improve drainage and curbing, lighting, signage and landscaping. Under the agreement, the parking lot will be available for public parking except for when services are being held at Westmoreland Funeral Home. Council agreed on installing four lights at the parking lot.
This project will be done in the spring when asphalt becomes available.
As for the restroom/events shelter at the gazebo park, Sikes recommended allowing England Builders to develop an alternate design for the restroom/events shelter structure, since the low bid was higher than the city's budget. Council authorized Sikes to work with England Builders on an alternate design, which will be presented at a future meeting.
Finance Director Julie Scherer said she’s spoken to the N.C. Department of Commerce about seeking an extension on the completion of the grant projects and this would give the city more time to complete them.
Furthermore, city officials did away with the rule which required sidewalk cafes to serve an entrée along with alcohol.
A few years ago, the City Council allowed for food and beverage establishments in the downtown area to serve alcohol on public sidewalks, if certain criteria are met. These are called sidewalk cafes.
One of the criteria included a requirement that a meal, defined as an entrée on the regular menu of the business, be served along with alcohol.
However, city officials have heard from both current and prospective businesses that this entrée requirement caused problems. They asked the requirement be changed or eliminated.
At Tuesday’s meeting, council members said downtown Marion had a beer and wine garden at both Mountain Glory and the New Year’s Eve celebration, and no problems arose at either of those events.
“I have heard no negative comments whatsoever after these took place,” said Mayor Steve Little.
Little added he and council were worried about a problem that doesn’t exist.
The couple who wants to open the new taproom on North Main Street has stated they don’t plan to be in the restaurant business.
At the meeting, council changed the requirement by stating that alcohol could be served in a sidewalk café along with food. Businesses will be able to define food.
Boyette said this gives the proprietors more flexibility and that food could be as simple as chips and salsa.
In other business, the Marion City Council:
• Heard the quarterly report from the Marion Business Association, as presented by MBA President Beth Davis. From October to December of last year, eight new businesses opened in Marion (Fat Boys’ Burritos, Marion Hearing Aids, Crabby Abby’s, Nat 20 game store, Gloria’s Place, The Rock Shop, Zaxby’s and Dazzling Divas) and five ribbon-cutting ceremonies were held. Four businesses closed (the Depot Grille, Masies 105, Cabbage Rose and Paperback Traders) while four other businesses either moved or got a new owner.
• Heard a report about PACE, which is a managed day care program for the elderly. Senior Center Director Weyland Prebor and advocate Martha Zimmerman talked about how this program could be brought here so that elderly people can stay at home and not have to go to a nursing home. It is also less expensive than a nursing home. After hearing their presentation, council voted to send a letter of support for getting PACE in Marion and McDowell County.
• Approved the advertisement for delinquent 2016 real property taxes. This will appear in The McDowell News on March 29.
• Approved the audit contract with Gould Killian CPA Group for $19,950.