Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 22, 2013

SPENCER — Anyone looking for fireworks at Monday night’s Spencer town board candidate forum left disappointed.
Even the challengers — Mike Boone and Rashad Muhammad — were complimentary of the six incumbents, who are all running for reelection. Mayor Jody Everhart attended but is unopposed. Aldermen Scott Benfield, Kevin Jones, Reid Walters, Jeff Morris and Mayor Pro Tem Jim Gobbel attended. Alderman David Smith was absent.
“I can’t say anything bad about the board,” Boone said. “But there is always need for improvement.”
So far, only Spencer has taken the Rowan County Chamber of Commerce up on an offer to host election forums for all municipalities, chamber President Elaine Spalding said. Spalding served as timekeeper, and chamber member Mark Lewis was the moderator.
Some questions were submitted by voters. Others were written by Lewis.
Several candidates politely disagreed with the premise of one question that asked about the “limited success” of Small Town Main Street, a two-year, state-run program. Spencer was tapped for the project and has completed about 15 months, with three committees meeting monthly.
“Should Spencer continue its efforts and if so, what should town leadership do to more effectively take advantage of this program?” Lewis asked.
“I kind of challenge the idea of limited success,” Jones said. “I don’t think that program is about what happens in the first 15 months as much as what happens in the future.”
Jones said Small Town Main Street will help revitalize downtown Spencer and find ways to improve the town’s appearance, bringing energy and momentum that can help both commercial and residential areas.
Gobbel said Small Town Main Street is working, and committees are coming up with ideas under the guidance of experts with the N.C. Department of Commerce. One committee is considering a St. Patrick’s Day celebration, which no other town is doing in Rowan County.
“It takes time,” Gobbel said. “You’ve got to take baby steps.”
Boone agreed that Spencer should continue Small Town Main Street and consider giving tax breaks to help recruit new businesses, which the former Park Plaza is failing to lure.
“Not only are we going to have to think outside the box, but we are going to have to step outside the box to get them here,” Boone said.
Benfield said it takes three to seven years for objectives and goals set during Small Town Main Street to get off the ground.
“We need to get the businesses to buy into it,” said Benfield, advocating a “shop local” campaign.
Morris said downtown Spencer is the epicenter and heart of the city, and the town should continue to support Small Town Main Street and “see what it brings us,” he said.
Morris said some people are not setting aside their personal agendas, and people need to be more positive and work together.
Walters said the program has pulled together people who really care about the town and eventually could lead to the creation of a nonprofit corporation to oversee the efforts and push progress.
Muhammad also supported Small Town Main Street and said the program could identify areas that need additional resources and leadership.
Everhart said he’s attended all Small Town meetings to date and supports forming a nonprofit organization to continue that work started under the state’s guidance.
Additional topics discussed during the forum included:
• How should elected officials and town staff work together for a common vision?
Muhammad said the mayor and aldermen should demonstrate enthusiasm for their vision for the town. Residents and merchants in Spencer will reflect the drive and work ethic displayed by elected officials, he said.
Everhart said the mayor tries to bring the aldermen together, so the board can have a common vision based on ideas and desires of the residents.
“It’s not really the decision from the seven that sits on the board but from the citizens to the board to the town staff, working as one team,” Everhart said.
Jones said elected officials need to take their direction from the community and then work together as a board. When aldermen are “on the same page,” they get a lot done quickly, he said, but when they’re not, progress slows.
Gobbel said aldermen should attend community events to stay abreast of what residents want.
Boone said the mayor and aldermen should be a catalyst based on the needs of the people, and indecision on the board should be eliminated. The board should set priorities and avoid discussing the same issue over and over, he said.
Benfield said community members need to take pride in where they live and get involved.
Morris said while all elected officials rarely will have identical ideas, a common vision can be reached with compromise, mutual respect and professionalism.
“You can compromise your position without compromising your principles,” he said.
Walters said elected officials should act as a liaison for residents and put their personal beliefs aside to do what’s best for the town. A community needs proper planning to thrive, and Spencer suffered because the board did not hold a long-range planning retreat last year, he said.
“Some issues were dodged because proper planning was not in place because we did not have a planning retreat,” Walters said.
Benfield said board members need to set priorities and goals that are affordable and must remain professional.
“To be a part of this board, you have to agree to disagree without taking it personal,” Benfield said. “That is hard to do sometimes. It really is.”
• How should Spencer support existing tourist and cultural attractions and promote new ones?
All candidates said the town must continue to support N.C. Transportation Museum, Spencer Woods and other ongoing efforts to draw visitors to town.
Boone said Spencer should work with other towns, for example offering some of Spencer’s historic homes as part of History Salisbury Foundation’s OctoberTour.
“When we bring those tourists out here, we need to make them feel welcome,” he said.
Benfield advocated trails across the Yadkin River Bridge and Wilcox Bridge and said Spencer needs to “beat Davidson County to the punch.” While the museum is a wonderful attraction, the town needs a reason for people to visit downtown, he said.
“Unfortunately we have very little for them on this side of the street,” Benfield said.
Morris said Spencer needs new opportunities for tourism and advocated the Thread Trail, as well as canoeing and kayaking on the waterfront.
Walters said a potential $1.7 million state grant for repairs and upgrades at the museum have the potential to take the facility to “another level.”
Muhammad said Spencer will continue to rely on visitors, some of whom hopefully will become residents.
“More than anything, tourism and the economy will go hand-in-hand,” he said.
Jones said Spencer needs to find a way to transform visitors into shoppers and diners so they will spend more than just a few hours in town.
“Tourism is a big part of who we are as Spencer,” he said.
Gobbel said he supports placing street furniture like benches and water fountains along the sidewalks to make Spencer more comfortable for tourists.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.