Conversations with: Mark Tofano

One of our goals at the Beacon is to highlight our many talented and interesting neighbors. We do this through The People of Matthews series, spotlights on town leaders, and the Conversations With series. Previous spotlights include Chris Sottile of The Loyalist and David Johnson of Silent Images. Future pieces include former Matthews Police Chief Rob Hunter and beekeeper Martha Krauss.

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Mark Tofano is a Matthews resident who purchased his 259 South Trade Street home in 2012 and began renovations on it in early 2013. In 2011, Brookchase Properties (owner Garry Smith) purchased 2.36 acres next door (269 Trade Street) intending to construct a high-density residential neighborhood. He offered the previous homeowner money to purchase her property and add it to the intended complex.  It is Mark’s contention that the property is a “cornerstone” which not only defines the entrance to the Four-Mile Creek Greenway, but is one of the first things that visitors see when entering the town (and is not in keeping with the remaining six nearby homes.)

Around August 10, 2018, a sign appeared on the BrookeChase property announcing a request to rezone the property from R20 to RVS on August 13, 2018. With an R20 zoning 3 homes may be built on the property. RVS zoning would allow five homes to be built facing South Trade St. and eight more homes to be constructed at the rear of that property. That plan also calls for the demolition of 60% of the nearby Green Wall, a tall, plant-lined path that lines the greenway entrance at Trade Street. In later August, Mark took out a two-page ad in a local newspaper, intending to draw more attention to this issue. Although Mark and Garry Smith had originally been engaged in dialogue to find a compromise, and Mark has talked with other town officials, the rezoning is moving forward. The project will be up for a vote during the October 8, 2018 Town Commissioner’s meeting.

Mark Tofano lives in a Matthews Heritage house, built in 1942 for the Burton family.

Mark Tofano lives in a Matthews Heritage house, built in 1942 for the Burton family.

Mark’s “other life” has brought enormous success. After leaving the Air Force (after five years of service), Mark became an electronic engineer in the Cape Canaveral area assigned to the manned space program, missile defense systems and manned bombers.  He also lived in Europe and spent nearly four years working on satellite communication systems. After his mother’s passing, he returned to south Florida working in sales for various companies including Olivetti and National Cash Register. He subsequently founded and funded software and electronic hardware companies, which were later (in part) sold to Apple Computer and other national/regional companies.  Of late, he has been a contract consultant providing business analysis and project development expertise for TIAA, Coca-Cola, Duke Energy, and Wells Fargo.

Tofano subsequently founded and funded software and electronic hardware companies, which were later (in part) sold to Apple Computer and other national/regional companies.

For the past 20 years, he has volunteered with Men of Acts, an outreach program sponsored by the Central Church of God which assists the elderly, disabled, single mothers and widows by providing minor home repair services; he is a member of the Opera Carolina chorus and also provides free piano lessons to underprivileged children as well as procuring pianos for those that cannot afford them.

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When I drove into Matthews to view the home, I simply fell in love with the town, especially the historic district, which I call “The Village.”

Photo by Cyma Shapiro

Why did you choose to move here? I was looking for a home to purchase and my daughter found 259 South Trade Street online.  When I drove into Matthews to view the home, I simply fell in love with the town, especially the historic district, which I call “The Village.”

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When I began to walk up the driveway to meet the previous owner Ms. (Suzie) Burton, a peace came over me.  At that moment I knew that this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Ms. Burton was so afraid that I was going to purchase the home and then tear it down to build a newer home.   I wrote Suzie a letter promising not to tear it down, but instead, to keep the exterior of the home as she always remembered it. I have kept that promise and will continue to do so, even though Suzie has passed away.

What were your hopes for living here? Simply to beautify the home and the property, making it an asset to the Town of Matthews.  My home was one of only seven homes left on Trade Street from the Greenway entrance to Sam Newell Road.  Now it is only one of six homes. (Last year, one of the houses was demolished on the neighboring property).

It appears as if people now know you through some media coverage and by your presence at town meetings regarding the land-use questions.  Why does this issue touch you? The entrance to the Historic District of the Town of Matthews begins at the Greenway entrance.  When pedestrians and motorists pass this point, they know that they are entering someplace special. And when they leave through this demarcation point, they feel the loss of leaving something precious behind.

What intentions do you have for this movement?  During the process of opposing the rezoning of 269 South Trade Street, it became apparent that there are many practices of the town government that could be improved and others that could be added or removed.  The most glaring deficiency (in my opinion…) is that there is a lack of real transparency in our town governance. In the age of electronic communication, there should be live broadcasts of every council meeting, live feeds of meetings via YouTube, Facebook or the like as well as a robust means of communicating to the public what is happening in government, and where and when it is happening other than through the town website or emails.  

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Have you ever been involved in town-related issues, before? This is my first foray into the matters of local government.  Like so many people that I have spoken with that are involved in local government, they made their entry because of issues that occurred within Matthews that they found to be unsatisfactory or unsettling.  In fact, in speaking individually with each of the commissioners, I have found that some of them entered politics for this very reason. I have never considered myself an activist as the word may be interpreted today.  Perhaps, years ago, in my youth, I would have managed myself more in this manner, but as the years have passed and maturity, wisdom, and experience have taken hold, I have found that a more effective means is through dialogue, understanding and appreciating an opposing opinion and then attempting to find a middle ground, a compromise.  

Do you feel that this issue is now your cause or passion, or does it fit into a greater philosophical life plan?  At the moment, waging an opposition to the current site plan for the rezoning of 269 South Trade Street is my cause and it is my consuming passion, as it is the passion of many other fine people that have joined with me in opposing the plan.  Even when this issue is resolved, this passion will be redirected to the many other issues that, in my opinion, plague the Matthews Township government and how it serves the citizens of the town.

I hear you are building a backyard bocce board and constructing a two-car garage nearby with a roof which will be used as a viewing stand for this sport. This is quite a remarkable undertaking! Why have you decided to build this? I am one of the last 100% Italians in the Tofano family line.  I lived in Europe for a number of years and have made frequent trips to (see my relatives in) Italy.  The visual image of families in a community playing Bocce Ball in the village has burned into my memory.  When I purchased my property, I saw the possibilities of actually having a Bocce Ball court on my own land which I have named “Cielo in Terra” - heaven on earth.  This landscaped open court will be much more than a playing field. It will (also) be a place for friends and family to meet, to play, to enjoy life and to enjoy each other.

Tofano has a leveled and compacted area in his backyard prepared for a full-sized bocce ball court.

Tofano has a leveled and compacted area in his backyard prepared for a full-sized bocce ball court.

What do you want people to know about you?  I came from humble beginnings; my parents were children of Italian immigrants and did not graduate from high school.  At the age of five, my parents thought that I might have talent with piano and found an accomplished pianist acquaintance who agreed to teach me for free. This act of kindness gave me a lifetime of enjoyment playing classical piano. (As noted, he now teaches piano to others.)  For those families that have insisted on compensating me in some small way, I would agree to have dinner with them before the lessons.

My desires for the lovely town in which I have chosen to call home is that it maintains its charm throughout the inevitable growth that it will experience.

Has your approach regarding the town and its greenways changed since your first foray into this arena?  My focus since the inception of the campaign to oppose the rezoning plan is the preservation of the greenway entrance “Green Wall” and to save the look and feel of entering into the Historic District on South Trade Street.  That has not changed. From the beginning, there were only two conditions which I have stated that are fundamental to my request for reasonable development: 1) that there would be no more than three houses facing South Trade Street and that these houses will have the average footprint, style, height and setback of the six remaining houses on South Trade Street and, 2) that the dense natural growth buffer between the site and the greenway entrance and the elementary school grounds be preserved.

What are your intentions for the future?  Life will continue much as it has…working to beautify my property, volunteering in the community and maintaining a close relationship with all of the wonderful people that I have met in the course of the opposition campaign.  As for being an activist, my desire is that all citizens in the town of Matthews become “activists,” that is, to actively participate in their local and regional governments.

And finally, what are your hopes for the future of Matthews? My desires for the lovely town in which I have chosen to call home is that it maintains its charm throughout the inevitable growth that it will experience.  In addition, I hope, I pray that the citizens of Matthews will be given a voice, a strong voice, in how their town develops. I intend to be instrumental in helping them have that voice.

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