Mount Airy elected leaders want more financial information about the proposed construction of a Barter Theatre in town – and they want it fast.
A special meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners Thursday afternoon – which was originally planned to discuss possible changes in city minimum housing regulations – instead was dominated by a discussion on the theatre. Along with requesting more details on how the city will fund the project, questions emerged about whether it is financially feasible at all.
But wait, there’s more: board members are seeking to get answers to unanswered questions and other relevant information by next Thursday night, to allow a vote on the plan during a scheduled regular meeting of the commissioners then.
That’s due to a cloud of urgency surrounding the proceedings which involves a need to get the theatre project – if approved by the council – under construction by June 30 in order for it to qualify for vital federal and state tax credits.
“If we vote next week, I’m voting no,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said during Thursday’s session that was heavily attended by citizens interested in the Barter Theatre issue.
“I want somebody to tell me how we’re going to pay for it,” Cawley added in reiterating concerns he previously voiced at a Feb. 1 community meeting on the Barter proposal.
That came in the wake of Mayor David Rowe announcing that city and Barter officials had signed a letter of intent for the Abingdon, Virginia-based professional theatre organization established in 1933 to expand elsewhere for the first time.
This would be on former Spencer’s industrial property downtown now owned by the city government, where other redevelopment projects including a hotel and upscale apartments already are in the works.
The construction of the 500-seat theatre envisioned would cost about $13.5 million, with plans calling for that to be offset by tax credits and a $2 million fundraising campaign by Barter officials.
Under that scenario, the net cost to the city would be about $3.6 million, according to information presented.
That still would subject municipal residents to a hefty property tax increase from the present rate of 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
Information presented has showed tax hikes to cover the building costs alone would fluctuate in the coming years from the present 48 cents to a maximum of 57 cents. Plus, additional tax hikes could be required for infrastructure expenses and other budgetary items which could take that to 70 cents within three years.
Among information requested by board members Thursday was what tax rate projections are without Barter in the mix, which could be significant to cover hefty needs already existing in Mount Airy.
Another request from the board calls for contacting Surry County officials to determine possible financial involvement by them, since the county would benefit by extra sales and other growth generated by the theatre.
City board members also said they wanted to hear presentations next Thursday from Dana Bryson, the hotel developer; Steve Powell, a marketing representative of the Barter Theatre who did not get to speak at the Feb. 1 meeting; and Tanya Jones, executive director of the Surry Arts Council, which would be impacted by the new facility.
Commissioner Jim Armbrister also said he wanted previously undisclosed financial information presented during recent closed meetings on the Barter Theatre plan to be made public so it can be weighed by citizens.
“It lets us hear from an informed public, not just opinions,” Armbrister said of the intent behind his request.
The five board members seemed split Thursday afternoon concerning their support for the theatre proposal. While all applaud the idea of it being built here to offer professionally staged productions, the monetary implications are troubling to some.
“It’s not a prima facie question of do you want the Barter? Of course,” Armbrister said.
Both he and Commissioner Shirley Brinkley referred to existing obligations of the city government which already might force a tax increase for the next fiscal year, even without Barter Theatre in the equation.
These are salary increases for city employees – at least for fire department personnel, in view of a raise last year which was limited to sworn police officers; money needed for a facelift on Market Street; other infrastructure projects such as parking lots; equipment needs previously denied; and others.
“I see it stalemating a lot of other opportunities for progress,” Armbrister said of devoting significant resources to the Barter project, saying the proposal at hand does not represent “a good business agreement.”
He is concerned about the real possibility of passing on costs of existing operations and pressing capital needs to taxpayers, not counting the theatre-related expenses.
However, Dean Brown, another commissioner, said Thursday that citizens who have voiced opinions to him in recent days seem agreeable to the Barter idea despite the costs.
“I’ve had over 60 contacts from the public,” Brown said of interactions ranging from emails to meeting people on the street. He said at least 46 expressed support for the plan and 14 cited opposition, but which was soft in some cases.
“I am convinced that the public is looking forward to the Barter,” Brown said.
Quick action urged
Along with the merits/drawbacks of the theatre proposal itself, city officials debated whether a vote on moving forward with it or not should be made at next Thursday’s meeting or delayed until March.
They ultimately picked Thursday, due to the urgency of needing to launch construction by the end of June – assuming favorable action occurs. This was despite the fact some of the information requested might not be ready by then.
“If you’re wanting to move dirt, you’re on a pretty tight schedule,” City Manager Barbara Jones warned the board.
“I’d like to see us vote on the 15th,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said of next week’s meeting.
The board subsequently agreed as a whole to address the matter then, although Cawley questioned the need for the rush.
“At this point, I don’t care anything about us getting a shovel in the ground by June,” he said, but acting in the long-term best interest of the city.
Cawley equated the pro-theatre sentiment expressed by some citizens to the excitement a person has when wanting to buy a vehicle.
“When you have new-car fever, sometimes the worst thing you can do is go to the car lot.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.