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Albemarle council discusses priorities for upcoming budget

The Albemarle City Council engaged in a roughly four-hour strategic planning session Tuesday evening, discussing and prioritizing several investment opportunities in order to provide City Manager Michael Ferris with clear direction in terms for the upcoming budget.

Each opportunity presented was an area of concern within the city that the council had identified during two planning sessions in November. Representatives from the Centralina Council of Governments facilitated the sessions in November and the one Tuesday.

For each of the seven investment opportunities, Ferris presented council with a list of activities the city is working on, along with examples of future activities/opportunities that could be enacted.

The opportunities discussed included attracting industry and building a business park, working to revitalize downtown, supporting businesses and startups, improving the city’s online presence, community health/opioids, city facilities (parks, culture/arts, amenities) and citizen engagement.

Current activities for attracting business and building the Albemarle Business Park have included acquiring 282 acres of land for the park (off U.S. Highway 52 S. near Trinity Place), designing plans for the infrastructure of the park and attending regional and national trade shows. One of the biggest future activities involved having city representation on the county’s Economic Development Commission.

“I think we need to focus on what we got and try and make the best with that,” Councilman Dexter Townsend said.

While much discussion revolved around advertising the business park, Mayor Ronnie Michael said nothing can happen until infrastructure decisions are made.

Councilman Chris Bramlett asked the council what would entice a third party to come to Albemarle to build the business park.

The council answered that water is the biggest asset the city possesses.

To help improve the downtown area, the city has adopted a commercial maintenance code, is installing new sidewalks and trees, has engaged in beautification projects and is managing incentive grants to aid in development. Future activities included creating a business owners association, funding the commercial maintenance code and having more downtown special events.

Bramlett was concerned with how the city would deal with an influx of graduate students with the opening this year of Pfeiffer University’s health sciences center in downtown.

Michael brought up the idea of renovating vacant downtown buildings and selling them to existing businesses, while Mayor Pro Tem Martha Sue Hall mentioned apartments coming to the area.

Townsend said the city has to offer more services in the downtown, especially with Pfeiffer graduate students set to arrive the city in a few months. He mentioned small business startup grants could be offered to attract business owners to come downtown.

“Anything that’s dead needs to be buried and when you come downtown after 5 p.m., you’re walking into a cemetery,” he said.

Bramlett said since the city lacks a large amount of angel investors, “we have to do it ourselves (raising funds).” He also mentioned the city involving itself more with Stanly Community College’s Small Business Center.

To support businesses and startups, the city has coordinated with state and local grants to assist with investment and job creation, responds to business inquiries and provides assistance and is currently developing downtown co-working space. Future activities include a revolving loan program for new businesses, partnerships with the county for business development and stronger Chamber of Commerce involvement.

The council discussed rebuilding the city’s website to make it more responsive and interactive. It would take several months and cost around $20,000, officials said.

“We talk about this as being a website, but it isn’t just a website,” said Owen Squires, director of information systems. “It’s a portal, so the public communication needs to be consistent.”

Squires said a new website would let the city send a single piece of content which would be sent to multiple platforms, including the city website, along with social media sites.

The council discussed lobbying elected officials to try and bring a detox center to the city.

For community health investment, Hall mentioned the importance of letting the public know they can drop off any unused or outdated prescription medications to Albemarle Police Department.

To improve the city’s amenities (parks, arts, etc.), Bramlett proposed the city give $20,000 to $25,000 a year to arts groups in the community such as the Uwharrie Players or the Talent Company “as a token indication that we are interested in that part of our community life.”

Townsend said while the city’s park system is great, he suggested enhancing certain aspects such as renting out canoes or paddle boats at City Lake Park and updating some of the park’s picnic shelters.

Hall mentioned creating a central calendar system to better advertise all of the events happening each week in the city and county.

“For folks who say there’s nothing to do in Stanly County, I would challenge you that there’s something going on somewhere in the county every week,” she said.

At the end of the session, the council voted on the the most important investment opportunities. The top three were the ones related to economic development. Other top priorities included infrastructure and road improvements, park facility improvement and community beautification and appearance.

“The entire process was extremely helpful to me,” Ferris said via email about the session. “As the one responsible for presenting a proposed budget each year, I need to hear in a clear and comprehensive manner what the council’s priorities are.”

“For City Council, the mayor and staff to take the time to undertake a process such as this demonstrates the respect everyone has for each other and their willingness to work together,” he said.  “Overall, we are being strategic about limited time and resources and where they should be directed to best meet the needs of our citizens.”

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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