Barter Theatre plan draws mixed reviews

By Tom Joyce -
Paul Madren speaks at a community meeting Thursday night regarding a proposed Barter Theater in Mount Airy, one of about 16 local citizens offering comments. - Tom Joyce | The News
This is what the new theatre would look like. - Tom Joyce | The News

More than 100 people attended an informational meeting Thursday night on plans to build a branch of the Barter Theatre in Mount Airy, which ended with the “critics” (citizens) giving it generally positive reviews.

However, along with the support voiced for bringing one of the premier professional theatre organizations in the nation to town were concerns about the financial implications for city taxpayers.

Thursday night’s meeting was staged in the Mount Airy High School Auditorium in the wake of a recent announcement that a letter of intent had been signed by both municipal and Barter Theatre officials to expand the Abingdon, Virginia-based operation here. This would be the first-ever move outside that town for the non-profit entertainment organization that has been in operation since 1933.

Plans called for a 500-seat theatre to be developed in a downtown building formerly long occupied by the Spencer’s apparel-manufacturing company that ceased production in 2007, whose holdings are now owned by the city government.

“This is purely an economic-development deal from the city’s point of view,” said Charlotte attorney Mac McCarley, who is assisting Mount Airy in redeveloping the Spencer’s property, including a hotel/banquet center and upscale apartments along with the proposed theatre.

The plan for that facility, to be connected physically to the hotel, is aimed at generating more tourism in Mount Airy and overnight stays. Last year, the operation drew 162,000 visitors to Abingdon.

A small group of Barter Theatre representatives attended Thursday night’s meeting and gave presentations on the various ways it could aid Mount Airy. This includes not only increased tourism and related revenues, but attracting a “creative class” here which could lead to companies relocating to town, new businesses being generated, jobs and educational outreach programs.

Cost outlook

But all that would come at a price, according to information presented at the meeting, also attended by all of Mount Airy’s elected leaders and key members of the city staff.

The construction and other costs of developing the theatre are put at about $13.5 million. This would be offset by federal and state tax credits available for rejuvenation of former textile mill properties as well as depressed areas such as the former Spencer’s site.

Bond or loan financing of about $6.7 million is eyed, representing a debt period of 20 to 22 years, and Barter Theatre would mount a $2 million fundraising campaign.

When all this is figured into the equation, the net cost to the city would be about $3.6 million, according to McCarley, who said this would be a 75-percent “discount” from the total. “That’s why this project can work.”

However, information presented during Thursday night’s lengthy session indicated that Mount Airy would subsidize the theater operation for three years, along with establishing a fund for capital maintenance and repairs and otherwise acting in a “landlord” role.

Barter Theatre, meanwhile, would manage and operate the local facility, pay all costs of the performances, with 250 guaranteed per year. Projections call for 81,250 tickets to be sold annually, with the municipality receiving $5 per ticket — half of which would go toward the debt and half into the capital repair/maintenance fund.

Using property taxes to cover the city’s budget deficit resulting from developing the theatre would mean increases over an 11-year period, according to a “conservative” outlook provided Thursday night by city Finance Director Pam Stone.

Tax hikes would fluctuate from the present 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to a maximum of 57 cents in the 2020-2021 fiscal year. For the owner of a $130,000 house, this would mean $702 in extra taxation over 11 years, about $64 annually.

Stone added that this could be offset somewhat by grants.

Citizens react

Audience members who spoke after the informational presentation seemed to fit into two camps — those who were happy about the opportunity for a Barter Theatre presence locally and others concerned about the budgetary impact. And some reflected a mixture of the two.

“Please bring the Barter to Mount Airy now,” said Mark Brown, who was one about 15 citizens who offered opinions.

Brown added that property-tax increases would be required “no matter what industry we bring here.”

Mount Airy should seize the opportunity that the project represents, according to Brown.

“Nobody wants taxes to go up, but we have to invest,” he said. “I’m saying Volvo is not going to move here no matter what — but Barter will.”

Scott Needham, who lives in Pilot Mountain but is a Mount Airy property owner/taxpayer, thinks sales tax and other revenues would greatly increase with the Barter presence — contributing to tourism as nothing else can.

“Barter will keep on giving in a way that others can’t — I just feel like this will be a missed opportunity if we don’t take it,” Needham added.

City resident Dwight McAlexander commented that some people think traditional textile and other industries will return, “but that’s not going to happen.” Alexander said Mount Airy should take advantage of every opportunity to bring highly regarded entities such as Barter Theatre to town.

“Mayberry one day is going to die,” said a woman sitting in the back of the auditorium who identified herself as an area mortician. “Something that lives on forever is theatre.”

“This town is at a pivotal point,” remarked Steve Cox, another project supporter, who is associated with brewery operations on Market Street downtown.

Cox also said the Barter proposal offers a rare opportunity for the city, and one that would increase its night-life commerce.

“People want other things to do — people want entertainment.”

But other speakers were troubled by the financial part.

“I’m for the Barter Theatre in every way,” local citizen John Pritchard reacted after the informational presentation.

“I don’t want to pay for it,” said Pritchard, who called the figures outlined “overly optimistic” and pointed out how the city government has a history of accruing large cost overruns with its various projects.

He questioned the notion that the theatre eventually would generate enough tax revenues to pay for itself, citing the failed Randy Parton Theatre in Roanoke Rapids as an example.

Barry Schneider, another citizen, said he thinks city officials should find oways of funding the project other than property-tax increases.

Paul Madren, who also spoke, pointed out that Mount Airy has many other worthwhile events such as the Autumn Leaves Festival and questioned how the theatre might stress parking and other facilities during the year.

“We don’t want Mount Airy to become Barter Theatre totally,” Madren said.

Cawley comments

City officials weighed in on the proposal after citizens did, including Commissioner Jon Cawley, who also referred to the funding issues while acknowledging the giddiness greeting the possible Barter presence.

“These are serious issues and the last thing we need is a pep rally,” Cawley told the audience. “We need to figure out how to accomplish this.”

Cawley said more funding sources than sales taxes are needed to finance the theatre, mentioning that his calculations show it could cost $2,000 per taxed parcel in the city.

“I’m not saying I’m against it — I’m saying we’ve got some work to do in figuring out how to pay for it,” he said.

Paul Madren speaks at a community meeting Thursday night regarding a proposed Barter Theater in Mount Airy, one of about 16 local citizens offering comments. Madren speaks at a community meeting Thursday night regarding a proposed Barter Theater in Mount Airy, one of about 16 local citizens offering comments.Tom Joyce | The News

This is what the new theatre would look like. is what the new theatre would look like.
Tom Joyce | The News

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.