Regional dinner theater eyed at Spencer’s

By Tom Joyce -


A member of a now-disbanded city redevelopment commission for the former Spencer’s industrial property is seeking to establish a performing arts center there, joining two other projects already on the table.

That disclosure emerged from a closed meeting of Mount Airy officials lasting nearly 2.5 hours Friday afternoon, when they also heard a presentation on an economic-development package designed to help the municipality recoup its investment in the city-owned property.

Tom Webb, a longtime local businessman who was one of seven members of the redevelopment group that sought to breathe new life into buildings where infant apparel manufacturing ceased in 2007, is involved once again — but from a different standpoint.

Webb now is identified as the front man for a project described in city documents as a performing arts/business center. He could not be reached Monday for comment or additional information concerning that endeavor.

However, DeWitt F. “Mac” McCarley, a Charlotte attorney and redevelopment expert assisting Mount Airy with its process, said in the wake of Friday afternoon’s meeting that Webb’s plan is for a “mixed-used regional dinner theater” entity. It is eyed for a rear building at the Spencer’s site that mainly fronts Willow Street, one block off the heart of downtown Mount Airy.

In addition to the entertainment aspect, the project would have a business component, according to McCarley.

Until Friday afternoon, only two developers had been announced for the sprawling 9.5-acre Spencer’s complex and its cluster of baby-blue buildings acquired by the city government in 2014. One proposes a four-star 80-room hotel and banquet hall and the other an 80-unit market-rate apartment project on parts of the Spencer’s property.

The concept involving Webb is similar to one presented last year by Fred Jones, a local restaurateur, which mirrored a perceived need to have a night-life aspect for the redevelopment to help fuel other components, especially the hotel.

Jones envisioned an “entertainment complex” of the type one might encounter in Myrtle Beach or Gatlinburg, based on his description, including a large auditorium for big-name musical performances or plays. He also listed an arts and crafts mall, a small business incubator that would be an educational facility and a visual arts component that could include training in filmmaking and other skills, among other segments.

The plan by Jones was said to be a $15 million project, with that by Webb put at $5 million.

Jones withdrew an option offer on part of the Spencer’s property in late 2015, saying he had decided to do so after “further consideration of the multi-faceted project with its many mitigating factors.”

In January of this year, the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners dissolved the redevelopment commission after a long-running dispute involving the latter group’s inclusion of nearby businesses in its plans rather than just Spencer’s.

Since contracting with the city government earlier this year, McCarley’s work on behalf of the municipality has involved seeking other suitors for the property.

Numbers tossed around

It had been noted during a strategy meeting in May — led by McCarley — that in addition to donating land and buildings, the Spencer’s revitalization likely would require major up-front investments by the municipality for infrastructure and other needs.

A breakdown of proposed financial terms and recoupment provisions for the potential redevelopment involving the three projects enlisted so far was released by the city government after the discussions Friday afternoon:

• The deal is based on total development of $28.5 million for the three, including $12 million for the apartments, $11.5 million for the hotel/banquet hall and $5 million for the performing arts/business center.

• Under the proposal, each developer would have a two-year option to buy property, with the city to recover $35,000 from each when those options are exercised, a total of $105,000 — roughly what Mount Airy paid for it in 2014. It also has allocated funds for environmental services for the property.

• It calls for the city to fund “predevelopment” and infrastructure activities.

• The developers also would be responsible for predevelopment activities and for building projects according to a master site plan jointly developed with the municipality.

• A payoff of $117,990 in combined annual property tax revenues is anticipated by the municipality from the three projects, in addition to other possible revenues generated as a result.

• The timeline calls for two years of predevelopment activities, which would end when building permits are issued. The city then would be paid predevelopment costs, with infrastructure work and construction to begin at that point.

“So we will get back some of the money the city paid for the property and are going to get back some of the predevelopment costs,” McCarley said of the proposal.

“It has a very high probability of success,” he added of the redevelopment plan.

Potential risks

The breakdown also identifies possible risks from the deal, including the fact that the redevelopment now envisioned will work only if it is approved for historic tax credits, which aid greatly in the financing of such efforts.

Another risk involves projected infrastructure costs for the Spencer’s property of $4.5 million. Officials have said they hope grants could be obtained to offset this, but Community Development Grant Funds already have been denied once to replace aging water and sewer lines in that area. That funding is being applied for again.

McCarley said city officials had not identified a ceiling, or maximum figure, for what the municipality is willing to invest in up-front costs for the redevelopment. “We are closing in on one,” he said.

The Charlotte attorney added that citizens will have a chance to weigh on the financial plan.

If there is no objection, the commissioners are expected to vote to move forward with it, McCarley said.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.


By Tom Joyce

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