When one thinks about attending stage plays in Mount Airy, a bluegrass or beach music concert, unique movie screenings, comedy shows and other entertainment events, the Surry Arts Council (SAC) immediately comes to mind.
After all, it has been the key player spearheading such attractions for nearly a half-century, using facilities ranging from the Andy Griffith Playhouse to the historic Earle Theatre.
But a new act may be coming onto the scene and threatening to steal the show in the eyes of some critics, involving plans for an expansion of Barter Theatre to Mount Airy.
The regional theater operation launched in 1933 in Abingdon, Virginia, would bring professional productions to town — at least 250 shows per year — rivaling the existing local arts entity for consumer and governmental dollars.
“We have some legitimate concerns about arts council funding,” SAC Executive Director Tanya Jones said Thursday when discussing the implications of the Barter presence for her organization.
Jones sought to speak on those during a Feb. 1 public meeting on the Barter proposal held at Mount Airy High School, but was kept from completing her remarks due to a time limit imposed on comments by citizens.
At that meeting, about 100 community residents were told that the city government was considering a $13.5 million plan to build a 500-seat theatre to accommodate Barter productions on former Spencer’s industrial property now owned by the municipality. This would be offset by tax credits and a planned $2 million fundraising campaign by Barter officials, but still net an expense of several million dollars to the city.
That and other costs associated with the deal could pose a long-term burden on municipal taxpayers, with some projections envisioning a jump in property taxes from the present 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 70 cents or higher.
Jones is concerned about what financial safeguards are in place with the Barter Theatre proposal, and how any shortcomings in that regard might affect Surry Arts Council facility and other needs that rely on city appropriations.
There is also the notion that only a limited amount of financial resources is available for the arts in a small town such as Mount Airy — from both the local government and donors.
“With discussion of arts spending that represents millions of dollars from the city,” Jones added Thursday regarding the Barter investment, “the Surry Arts Council is concerned regarding the safeguards that are in place to protect, maintain and expand the city’s existing arts programs and arts venues.”
Jones describes the Surry Arts Council as a “major stakeholder and partner” with the city government in both arts venues and programming.
The city owns the Andy Griffith Playhouse (seating 357), the Andy Griffith Museum and Andy Griffith Museum Theatre (126 seats) and Blackmon Amphitheatre (more than 1,700). The council owns the 423-seat Earle Theatre, donated to the organization in 1990.
Jones mentioned that the Surry Arts Council has ongoing repair, maintenance and capital needs that are annually presented to Mount Airy officials. A high priority for many years has been parking lot improvements at the Andy Griffith Playhouse, where the stage floor also is approaching 100 years old.
The arts council oversees programming at the different venues, for which it receives an annual allocation from the municipal budget of $87,500. The city commissioners initially cut that by 5 percent, along with appropriations to other organizations such as the local museum, when approving the budget for the present year, citing a tight revenue outlook. The commissioners later restored full funding.
Typically, receiving that money has required Jones and representatives of the other organizations to approach a city budget committee to lobby, or “barter,” for the special appropriations and provide justification for those.
In addition to the city dollars, Jones questions how the non-profit Barter Theatre presence might affect donor revenues the council relies on along with grants and other sources — with its latest annual fund drive kicking off this past Thursday.
“We are aware that individual arts contributions are limited in a town of 10,000, we are aware that city funds are limited for special appropriations, we are aware that the corporate community is changing and shrinking,” the council official pointed out.
”Not only are donations by our local population limited, but donations for the arts are limited,” Jones emphasized.
Barter viability questioned
While the city of Mount Airy would commit millions for the local expansion of Barter Theatre, the latter’s financial involvement is limited.
It would manage and operate the local theatre, pay all costs of performances — with sets moved from Abingdon after plays are presented there. Projections call for 82,250 tickets to be sold annually for local productions, with $5 from the price of each going to the city for debt reduction and a capital repair/maintenance fund for the facility.
Barter officials say they would work collaboratively with the Surry Arts Council and productions it stages at the Andy Griffith Playhouse, and cooperate on fundraising efforts.
However, Jones wonders how viable the Barter Theatre concept might actually be in Mount Airy.
“Is there solid research to show that Barter would work here or just a developer’s hunch?” she asked.
One drawback the Surry Arts Council official sees is no traditional local connection, similar to how the Mayberry concept is part of Mount Airy’s organic fabric as Andy Griffith’s hometown.
“I have been an advocate of place-based economic development and tourism for 35 years, venues with authenticity and connections. This means seeking community involvement — expanding and capitalizing on existing assets — sense of place — cultural tourism — (a) story of destination. What we are — not Anywhere USA.”
When such authenticity is lacking, as would be the case for Barter Theatre, success can be limited, according to Jones, who referred to other communities that have copied the local Mayberry Days celebration as example of this.
“They run out of steam — longest so far is six years.”
But despite the drama created by the Barter Theatre proposal, Jones is hoping the story has a happy ending for her longtime local organization:
“The Surry Arts Council values its relationship with the city of Mount Airy and looks forward to continued cooperation, progress and expansion as we move forward.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.