Barter Theatre may expand to Mount Airy

By Tom Joyce -
Rowe -

Mount Airy officials are poised to raise the curtain on a deal for Virginia’s famed Barter Theatre to expand to “Mayberry.”

“We have signed a letter of intent and they have signed it,” Mayor David Rowe said Saturday in reference to officials of the Abingdon-based entertainment operation considering a new location in this city. “And we are working on a final draft for a contract to get them to come here.”

In the meantime, city officials want to outline the project to the public, which will occur during a meeting scheduled this Thursday at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of Mount Airy High School. Rowe says it will include an informational session on the proposal and an opportunity for citizen input on what’s envisioned.

The plans call for a local Barter Theatre branch to be developed in Building Nine of the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown, to the rear of structures fronting Willow Street where other facilities including a four-star hotel/banquet center are eyed.

In 2014, the city government acquired the old Spencer’s complex, where apparel production ceased in 2007, to redevelop for such uses. Local businessman Tom Webb earlier was considering Building Nine for a manufacturing facility, but withdrew his participation last year.

The Barter Theatre, meanwhile, is the longest-running professional theatre in the nation, having opened in 1933. It stages major plays year-round through the presence of a professional resident company, which has helped launch the careers of actors such as Gregory Peck, Kevin Spacey, Ernest Borgnine and others.

Two Barter locations now exist, both in Abingdon’s historic district, a main theatre with 505 seats and Barter Stage II, with 167 seats.

Rowe reminded Saturday that negotiations aimed at opening another Barter Theatre in Mount Airy have been under way “for a long time now.” This included a trip to that Southwest Virginia town of 8,083 residents by local representatives in March of last year.

“The people at the Barter Theatre absolutely love Mount Airy,” the mayor said of the exploratory process back and forth.

Public input sought

Rowe said the effort to bring the facility here has been kept under wraps for the most part due to its sensitive nature. “We were sworn to secrecy until they (Barter Theatre operators) could inform their investors of what they intended to do.”

However, the mayor stressed that the agreement is “not a done deal,” for reasons including a desire by Mount Airy leaders to receive public input on the proposal before any contract is signed or official funding or other action taken.

“This is the kind of thing on which you need public input,” Rowe said, which is the impetus for Thursday’s meeting among local officials.

“We want people to know what we are doing and why we are doing it,” he added of the Barter Theatre plan. “We don’t want to spring it on people.”

There are some obvious reasons for this, according to the mayor.

“It’s going to be very expensive,” he said of cost of developing the new facility and the impact of that on municipal funds. “We’re going to have to invest in it in some kind of way.”

The up-front construction expense to the city for the Barter Theatre location is put at more than $12 million. This could be offset by historic mill tax credits available for such projects to make the net cost around $3.5 million, based on rough estimates provided by the mayor.

That outlay could be spread out over time, he said, but “probably” would require dipping into the city’s available fund balance, or savings, which at last report stood at $10.8 million.

Payback prospects

Mount Airy’s investment would be offset through future property tax revenues realized from the redevelopment of the Spencer’s property and other business growth the Barter Theatre operation generated. This likely would include new restaurants and other facilities as a result of its presence.

“It’s been a great economic driver for Abingdon,” Rowe said, producing an estimated $32 million a year in various revenues in that Virginia community. “That’s what we’ve been told.”

The Barter would be a natural tie-in with the hotel complex planned nearby, theoretically drawing visitors to town who would watch shows and then spend the night.

Rowe said the recent efforts to bring the Barter Theatre to town are among the reasons why legal costs for the Spencer’s development have ballooned over original expectations.

And while the proposal has been the subject of lengthy discussions behind closed doors of late under the veil of economic development, the plans will be brought to light during Thursday’s meeting at the high school.

Rowe said the meeting was rather hastily planned in view of the fact that projects using historic mill tax credits must be under construction by the end of June under recent federal tax-reform legislation.

“We need to have as many people there as we possibly can,” the mayor said.

Community input sought at meeting

By Tom Joyce

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

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