With the Major League Baseball season in full swing, five local residents vying for a vacancy on the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners appropriately made their pitches during a meeting Thursday afternoon.
Those candidates had applied by a deadline last month to fill the city’s at-large commissioner seat formerly held by Mayor Ron Niland.
That opening was created through a sequence of events beginning with the resignation of former Mayor David Rowe last October and the eventual appointment of Niland — who also had served as mayor pro tem under Rowe — to the chief executive post.
Citizens were invited to apply for the at-large vacancy, which was open to residents from all areas of the municipality and not limited to wards as are the other four commissioner seats.
The list includes Mark Brown, Len Fawcett, Teresa Lewis, John Pritchard and Joe Zalescik.
Thursday afternoon was set aside for each of the five to speak on their qualifications before the commissioners, who will make a decision on who becomes the newest board member at their next meeting on Sept. 16.
They were allowed 10 minutes to make their cases and state their goals for the city. These ranged from trying to draw new industry, upgrading business corridors in town, transparency in local government, working to maintain Mount Airy’s quality of life and others in between.
The candidates spoke in alphabetical order:
Brown said during his presentation that he is approaching the possible role as a city commissioner with no “political agenda” in mind, but wants to help Mount Airy in any way needed.
He is the news director and sports director of local radio stations WPAQ/WSYD, works for Mayberry Squad Car Tours and owns Brown Communications, which provides sound services for various events. Brown also is the writer and producer of Historic Mount Airy Ghost Tours.
“I am selling Mount Airy just as hard as I can,” he said of his work in the different roles.
Brown also addressed the fact that those are artistic in nature.
“I feel my background in the arts shouldn’t keep you from seriously considering me for this position,” he told the commissioners, saying the city board needs representatives with diverse interests.
Brown supports major projects eyed by the city government, such as recent recommendations from Vision committees including developing an events center that would feature a permanent structure for the local farmers market.
But Brown said he also would tackle relatively small issues such as ongoing paving issues on Willow Street, flooding on South Street and the need for sidewalks along the U.S. 601 commercial corridor.
“I am willing to help, even if people hate the decisions I make.”
Rather than focusing on what’s wrong with Mount Airy, Fawcett spent much of his time at the podium Thursday afternoon praising positive elements of the city.
Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, relatively recent downtown additions such as the Whittling Wall and Melva’s Alley, arts facilities and the Mount Airy War Memorial were among those he mentioned.
Fawcett, who has held upper-level positions at area golf courses for 35 years in all — including as course superintendent at the Roaring Gap golf club — is now semi-retired.
He mentioned the various changes Mount Airy’s economy has undergone over the years, particularly the decline of the local textile industry. And Fawcett considers the ongoing redevelopment of one of those former manufacturing sites, Spencer’s, as the most important economic-development project in the city’s history.
The at-large commissioner hopeful said one segment he is interested in improving involves various business sites in town to promote growth, including along South and West Pine streets, the Franklin Street area, West Lebanon Street and along U.S. 52.
Fawcett said if chosen as commissioner, he would listen to concerns of all residents of the city regardless of socioeconomic class.
“It is a special place,” he said of Mount Airy, “and I want to make it even better.”
Lewis is unique among the five applicants due to being the only one to previously serve as a commissioner, from 2009 to 2011, in the at-large seat she is seeking to fill again.
“I feel I am extremely qualified,” said Lewis, who in addition to her city government tenure has served on the boards of various community organizations over the years.
Lewis is a retired businesswoman long associated with the WorkForce Unlimited firm, of which she is still chairman of the board, according to Thursday’s presentation.
Though she served on the city council for only a short time, deciding not to run for the position in the 2011 municipal election, Lewis is proud of her service while with the board.
“I was the deciding vote for recycling,” she said of a 2011 move by the commissioners to launch a curbside recycling program in town.
Lewis also said Thursday that she has overcome multiple health problems, including Stage 1 breast cancer, and is physically fit to serve as a council member again.
When announcing she was stepping down in 2011, Lewis cited the increasing demands of her business and a desire to spend more time with her grandchildren.
While praising Mount Airy’s tourism industry and quality of life, Pritchard said Thursday that more substantial economic foundations are needed.
“Even with those things, we’re sinking,” said Pritchard, who spent many years in the banking field. “We need something else.”
He advocates more efforts to recruit new industry to town, saying other cities of Mount Airy’s size in North Carolina have managed to do so.
“We need full-time jobs,” Pritchard stressed, mentioning that tourism and other pursuits are “the dessert” locally.
“We need the main entree,” he explained. “We need more jobs if we’re going to grow.”
Pritchard also pointed out that he is a faithful monitor of local government affairs. “I follow politics like other people follow sports.”
Along those lines, Pritchard said he is well-versed and up to speed on city government activities both past and present, mentioning that this would require no transition or learning curve on his part if selected.
“I’ve attended 95% of all the (council) meetings for the last 10 or 12 years.”
Pritchard promised transparency in local government and said he would represent all citizens.
Zalescik grew up in Hamilton, New Jersey, but said Thursday that he moved to Mount Airy in recent years with the hopes of staying here for the rest of his life.
He cited previous experience in New Jersey, including serving with the fire department in his community and six years on an environmental advisory commission.
Zalescik is retired from a long career in health-care media relations, about 40 years in the hospital field, and now owns a small business here called Station 1978 Firehouse Peanuts, with that being the year he joined the fire department. He additionally coordinates the Mount Airy Farmers Market.
The former New Jersey resident also has had a taste of city government, due to serving on the Mount Airy Planning Board. “We’ve updated the codes and I’ve worked real hard on the Planning Board,” he said.
“Ethics is number one in my book,” Zalescik added of qualities he would bring to the council if appointed as at-large commissioner. “And I want to be as transparent as possible.”
The candidate further offered insight into how he would approach legislative business: “I look at details and then I make a decision.”
Mount Airy already has much to offer, Zalescik said, including good public works operations such as water and sewer services and reasonable taxes.
In addition to other qualifications, he concluded, is “my enthusiasm for Mount Airy.”
“This will be a very difficult decision for our board,” Mayor Niland said of the appointment action after listening to the presentations, noting that he is looking forward to getting a new person in place soon.
“We have a big job choosing from some very qualified candidates,” Commissioner Marie Wood agreed.
The two-week period before the next meeting will allow deliberation by the board on who is best suited for the job along with citizen input, Wood said.
Commissioners Jon Cawley, Tom Koch and Steve Yokeley also thanked the five for being willing to serve.
“I know it takes a lot of intestinal fortitude just to put your name out there,” said Yokeley.