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Our Opinion: Council earns cheers for voting to preserve Brewmasters mural

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Donald Evans had a road-to-Damascus moment Thursday night.

The District 5 city councilman initially opposed a tweak to Wilson’s unified development ordinance with a grandfather clause that would preserve Dave Matthews’ mural at Brewmasters, but a chorus of concern from city residents changed his mind.

“My hat’s off to the Matthews fellow for being able to do something like that on the scale of the whole side of the building,” Evans said. “... It takes someone with an artistic mind to do all that work.”

He’d done his share of soul-searching, driving to Brewmasters and examining the mural himself earlier in the day. The experience made an impression, but it was the impassioned pleas from fellow Wilsonians that won him over.

“When I came to our meeting tonight, I was against the grandfather clause,” Evans said. “But I’m here to make a motion tonight that we accept the amendment with the grandfather clause, and that would be my motion.”

Those words — punctuated by spontaneous applause from residents in the packed council chambers — set the Wilson City Council on the right path forward.

Councilmen had wrestled with the question of whether Wilson needed a new sign and mural ordinance at all and whether it should include the grandfather clause, which the Planning and Design Review Board voted to strike. For much of the 90-minute public hearing, the skepticism was evident.

“In the beginning, I did not see this concluding in our favor, but I’m glad everyone put on their common-sense hats and reached this resolution,” said Brewmasters owner Morkos Youssef. “I’m glad this is over with.”

The feud over Matthews’ mural incorporating the word “Brewmasters” in negative space between illustrations and whether it’s a work of art, which the previous ordinance allowed, or an advertisement, which it prohibited, has been brewing for a full year. If city leaders hadn’t acted, it could have dragged on for a decade.

Brewmasters attorneys Rhyan Breen and Will Farris noted the First Amendment issues involved with city government ordering the erasure of an artist’s work. If the council couldn’t make peace with the mural, Farris vowed to fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to protect Matthews’ freedom of speech.

“I don’t think it is prudent for us to move toward litigation when we can find a solution,” said District 2 Councilman Michael Bell, earning a hearty round of applause. “It makes no sense. We need all the money that we can get to stay here.”

Wilson residents made their voices heard, and in the end, that made all the difference. It was a genuine grassroots endeavor — though Brewmasters rallied its troops, many citizens who attended and spoke during the public hearing had no connection to the business. They just wanted their hometown to thrive and prosper.

Thanks to their persuasive efforts, the Wilson City Council made the right call.

While we credit the groundswell of public support with saving the mural, we can’t diminish our city councilmen’s role or say enough about their authentic deliberations.

It’s OK that council members opposed the new ordinance and grandfather clause at first. They needed to grapple with the complex issues involved, and they did so in real time with admirable candor and poise.

They struggled with this decision, concerned about its impact on the city’s rulebook. And in the end, they arrived at the correct conclusion. The process worked.

We’ve criticized the council at times — it’s the newspaper’s job to hold public officials accountable — but today we offer nothing but praise.

Thank you, Councilmen A.P. Coleman, Michael Bell, Tom Fyle, James Johnson, Donald Evans, Logan Liles and Derrick Creech. Thank you, Mayor Bruce Rose.

The unanimous vote to adopt the ordinance with the grandfather clause received a raucous cheer and a partial standing ovation. Our city council deserves the applause.

Wilson can once again tout that we’re a forward-thinking city steeped in art and culture. We have the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. We have the Eyes on Main Street outdoor photography festival. We have the Arts Council of Wilson and Theatre at Barton.

And we have Dave Matthews’ mural. It’s here to stay.

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