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Spencer candidates wrestle with age-old problems

SPENCER — Candidates for Spencer aldermen and mayor are wrestling issues that have plagued the town for years — how can Spencer recruit new businesses, and how can the town convince N.C. Transportation Museum visitors to walk across the street and spend money downtown.
Challengers Mike Boone and Rashid Muhammad hope to unseat someone to win the election on Nov. 5. All six incumbent aldermen — Scott Benfield, Kevin Jones, Reid Walters, Jeff Morris, David Smith and Mayor Pro Tem Jim Gobbel — are running for re-election. Mayor Jody Everhart is running unopposed.
All candidates said they would support economic incentives to help recruit new businesses, and some said they would consider tax breaks for companies that promised new jobs and then delivered.
“I believe that at least to get businesses in the door, they should offer incentives,” Muhammad said. “In order for them to stay, you need to offer them something. That will help the economy grow.”
Morris said he’s willing to consider whatever incentives experts and economic development officials recommend. He said the town could partner with the Rowan Tourism Development Authority to give the N.C. Transportation Museum a needed boost and increase the business activity in the downtown.
“I would like to encourage an outfitter to set up shop in town and have canoe and kayak rentals along the Yadkin River, perhaps from the ample parking we have in our downtown area,” he said in an email.
Benfield said the town should consider tax breaks only if a business creates new jobs and fulfills investment promises. In that case, “I would support anything that we can do as far as incentives,” he said.
People have been working on business recruitment for years with little success, Benfield said.
“If everybody would shop local, it would make a big difference in our community and help retain some of the businesses we have,” he said.
Walters said while he would support incentives, one of the biggest boosts to Spencer’s economy will be the industrial park Davidson County is building across the river. Spencer has good industrial sites and should work with the state’s Department of Commerce and Rowan County Economic Development Commission to market them, Walters said.
Bringing new industry into town is crucial to alleviate the burden on residents, who provide most of the tax base, he said.
During a recent candidate forum, Boone suggested offering economic incentives to lure new commercial development.
“We should offer tax breaks for businesses in the short-term, and it has to be contractual,” Boone said. “They must perform to certain measures to earn the incentives.”
The town should work more closely with Rowan County to help recruit businesses to the area, and the EDC should focus on the northern end of the county to better balance development in Rowan, Boone said.
“The county should not have weak spots,” he said.
Gobbel said while he doesn’t like incentives, they are “the way the game is played nowadays.”
“I would consider it, if that’s what it would take to increase business and bring revenue into Spencer,” he said.
He warned that with the town’s tight budget, it could be difficult to put together an incentives program. Negotiation would be key, and any company earning incentives would have to pay back the community over a period of time with jobs and investment, Gobbel said.
Smith said Small Town Main Street volunteers may propose expanding the town’s facade grant program and other types of non-tax incentives to help improve the appearance of downtown and generate business.
Jones said he’s not opposed to incentives but would like to see the town try other economic stimulators first.
“We have lot of natural assets between our location and the N.C. Transportation Museum and the river and Spencer Woods that we can tap into that can bring in new businesses,” Jones said. “It’s figuring out how to take advantage of the stuff we have. We have not done a really good job with that.”
Everhart said while he would steer clear of tax breaks, he would consider other types of short-term incentives, depending on the jobs created and amount of investment.
“We need to help them start up in any way we can,” he said.
The town should be able to recoup its investment during five to 10 years following the incentive, he said.
Spencer has long tried, largely unsuccessfully, to lure museum visitors across Salisbury Avenue to the downtown business district.
Everhart said until downtown has more to offer, the town will continue to have a hard time convincing tourists to venture across the street.
“Most people who travel like to see little specialty shops,” he said. “We are going to have to find some way to fill up our storefronts.”
Town leaders can’t attract shoppers and diners on their own, Everhart said. Merchants need to stay open later on weekends, at least until 4 p.m., he suggested.
Jones said the financial health of Spencer depends on finding a way to capitalize on crowds that turn out for museum events. Often, the town and museum are not on the same page, he said, and the business district isn’t taking advantage of special events at the museum.
“Having a better dialogue between the town and the museum will help,” Jones said.
Downtown merchants should view crowds as an opportunity, not a problem, he said. Temporary parking and traffic problems are well worth the potential revenue, he said.
Smith said Small Town Main Street is considering working with the Rowan Arts Council to bring events to downtown Spencer that will draw tourists across the street. The economic development group also hopes to obtain permission from landlords on Salisbury Avenue to paint murals on building windows to make them more attractive, he said.
In its second year in Spencer, the Small Town Main Street program could help the town finally lure tourists across the street, Gobbel said. The program has three committees — economic development, promotions and design.
“We are trying to put the business district in a positive light and reestablish it as a compelling place for merchants, visitors and investors,” he said. “It’s going to take time, but I feel confident we will turn the corner.”
State experts with Small Town Main Street have completed a business and market study, custom-made for Spencer. The information is available and valuable to merchants and anyone considering starting a business, Gobbel said.
Boone said the downtown needs more businesses and suggested a restaurant with a train motif to attract children with families.
Making Salisbury Avenue attractive and increasing home ownership in the downtown area are key to economic development, Walters said.
“It’s all part of an equation that needs to happen,” he said. “It has to come from the inside out, and it has to come from people who live and participate in our community who are willing to open small businesses.”
Benfield said the town could make it easier to physically get across the street, which is a four-lane span of asphalt. Crosswalks with pedestrian-triggered lights would help, Benfield said, or perhaps a covered pedestrian bridge over the street.
The downtown needs businesses that appeal to mothers with children who are visiting the museum, Morris said. Data and consumer studies collected by Small Town Main Street can help someone determine a niche market and capitalize on the need, he said.
Muhammad said the town needs a salesperson and more literature at the museum during peak times to make sure visitors know what’s available across the street. Without better public relations, “the average person may not know what’s there,” he said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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