A lot has happened since Mayor Ron Niland was elected to office in Mount Airy’s 2019 local election — full of triumphs and tragedies — but Niland believes he is leaving a city government well positioned for the future.
“I’m proud of the accomplishments of this body and this community over the past three years,” Niland said during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners as the mayor delivered what he called a “farewell speech.”
Twelve days earlier, Niland had lost a hard-fought campaign for the mayor’s seat to current North Ward Commissioner Jon Cawley, which at times turned bitter.
But Niland didn’t allude to that in his remarks, which occupied about the last 10 minutes of last Thursday night’s meeting at the parish hall.
“We are all neighbors who care about each other and our great city,” he said while reading from a prepared statement, which was punctuated at points by off-the-cuff comments.
To say that the city government was surrounded by a whirlwind of events during his tenure might be considered an understatement.
Niland, then 64, ran in July 2019 for the vacant seat on the council then held by Jim Armbrister, a former member of the Mount Airy Police Department who was battling cancer. Armbrister died the day before a primary affecting the seat in October that year, and Niland was elected the next month.
And in October 2020, then-Mayor David Rowe – who was also struggling with health – resigned from that post and died the following August. Niland was provisionally appointed mayor to head city government while continuing to serve as general commissioner.
In May 2021, his fellow board members named Niland mayor, a post he will soon vacate when Cawley and other Nov. 8 election winners are sworn into office on Dec. 1, with the past year also being accompanied by a change of city manager.
“I congratulate the winners who now have the privilege and responsibility to serve our city in the future,” Niland said in his gracious farewell speech, referring to new commissioners Deborah Cochran, Chad Hutchens and Phil Thacker, and the new mayor.
“I’m grateful to everyone who has stood up for their service,” added the outgoing mayor, noting in his appreciative context soon-to-go commissioners Steve Yokeley and Joe Zalescik. “Until you’ve been there, you don’t realize how difficult this can be for your families and loved ones.”
Niland had said before the meeting last week that he had no plans to seek public office again in the city. “No, I’m done.”
Still, he plans to keep working to serve the community behind the scenes on various projects.
town in a good place
Niland, who was also Mount Airy city manager from 1991 to 1996, believes it is in a good place as preparations are made to hand over the keys to new leadership.
The mayor stated that he was proud of both the board and the community for the achievements of the past three years, particularly the community as none of this has taken place “in a vacuum”.
“We have put the ship back in financial order and started planning for the future,” he said of one development.
Niland also detailed his formation of “vision” committees that examined economic development and other local areas, which included “many young people with a passion for the community” as members.
The be-all and end-all of municipal operations has also benefited from this. These include a switch to automated garbage collection, which Niland says is a big savings for taxpayers because fewer staff are required for the task, and the purchase of a new fire truck.
Niland also listed downtown improvements, including much-needed restrooms recently built at the north end of the central business district, and recreation gains such as plans for an expansion of the city’s greenway and new pickleball facilities.
Another plus is continued redevelopment of Spencer’s former downtown textile factory, including a hotel partnership that will bring a Marriott hotel there.
The outgoing mayor is also proud of the partnerships with county and state governments, as well as with key non-profit organizations that receive financial support from City Hall, including the free clinic Surry Medical Ministries, the homeless shelter Shepherd’s House and others.
Large funding injections were also announced for two other community bodies that play important roles, the Surry Arts Council and the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.
Niland seems pleased with the hiring of Stan Farmer as city manager late last year, filling a gap left by the retirement of Barbara Jones, a city stalwart.
“We didn’t just hire a city manager, we hired one of the best – I think – in this country,” the mayor remarked during his parting words.
“Most importantly, tonight we took a big step in investing in our people,” Niland said of pay rises approved earlier in the evening for 70 city employees, including 37 positions at the sometimes-staffed Mount Airy Police Department.
When Niland took office three years ago, his top priority was to increase employee salaries.
City management is more than just meeting and making decisions about staff or equipment, with Niland also focusing on the human side of the equation.
“I’ve always viewed this as a public service and tried to treat everyone with compassion and respect,” he said. “I will cherish the friendships and interactions with those who make our community a better place to live.”
And while council meetings have sometimes been contentious, Niland has consistently maintained his belief that, in the end, everyone leaves the building as friends, even if they disagreed on various issues.
“In the end, we won’t be judged by what happens in this chamber – we will be judged by how we treat each other outside of these walls,” he said.
“We are all neighbors who care about each other and about our great city – let this be the legacy for those who follow us,” continued Niland. “We owe so much”
After saying what a “great honor” it was to serve his community as mayor, Niland got emotional as he recited the final sentence of his two-page address on Thursday night:
“God bless everyone and thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Niland’s speech was greeted with strong applause from the audience.