Mount Airy officials took no action Thursday night on a proposed contract between the city government and the Barter Foundation to bring an expansion of its theatre operation to town.
Although plans for building a Barter facility on former Spencer’s industrial property remain on hold, there were still plenty of theatrics to be had during a regular meeting of the city commissioners which spanned four hours on that topic alone.
Despite announcing last week that a decision on the project was to be made during Thursday night’s gathering, Commissioner Jon Cawley announced at one point that this would not occur.
Cawley explained that Mayor David Rowe — who was unable to attend the meeting for health reasons — had asked that any vote be delayed, presumably to allow more time to weigh all the factors involved.
The board decided by consensus to honor Rowe’s request, Cawley told the audience, acting in his role of mayor pro tem by leading the meeting in the mayor’s absence.
Cawley added that he did not know when the commissioners will act on the proposed Barter Theatre expansion, which is part of a larger effort to redevelop the city-owned Spencer’s site downtown. A four-star hotel/banquet center and upscale apartments also are planned there.
The session was dominated by financial considerations, including the costs of the project to municipal taxpayers weighed against the potential economic benefits of having a professional theatre presence locally.
The potential negative effect of that presence on an existing operation, the Surry Arts Council (SAC), also was a source of debate during the meeting that was moved from City Hall to the Mount Airy High School auditorium.
That issue produced a spirited verbal exchange at one point between SAC Executive Director Tanya Jones and Commissioner Steve Yokeley.
It erupted after Jones — who was allowed to give a formal presentation regarding the Barter’s positive impact on the SAC — charged that her longtime organization has been left out of the loop in discussions on the possible expansion by the Abingdon, Virginia-based entity.
This led Yokeley to ask Jones if she instead had made any gestures toward that group.
“Have you reached out to the Barter … about what they can do for you?” Yokeley said of how its operation might complement the Surry Arts Council.
Jones replied that for one thing, the possibility of Barter Theatre coming here has only recently been announced publicly. Also, Jones said she had “problems” with the organization over its alleged failure to refund money it owed the SAC after canceling a booking of a Barter production here in the past.
“I still haven’t gotten an answer to my question,” Yokeley then said, asking Jones if she would be willing to contact Barter Theatre today, after Thursday’s meeting.
Jones indicated that she wouldn’t, citing “integrity” issues she had over the money it did not readily give the arts council in the past. The SAC official said she would, however, “entertain conversations with the commissioners.”
After further exchanges with Yokeley, Jones accused him of “backing me into a corner, which I will not be backed into.”
Along with being left out of discussions about the Barter Theatre project, the Surry Arts Council official charged that the situation otherwise has not been handled fairly where the SAC is concerned.
“We are not opposed to changes, and we are not opposed to additional arts venues,” Jones said.
She pointed out that city officials seem willing to invest millions of dollars in a project to construct a theatre for an out-of-town operation while glaring facility needs exist for the arts council, relating to parking and other infrastructure.
Jones also said the city government’s budget outlook calls for providing a maintenance person specifically for the Barter Theatre at municipal expense, which the SAC would like to have for its facilities that are city-owned.
“I don’t think that we are on a level playing field, and I don’t think that’s fair,” she said.
Jones additionally said she didn’t think the city would be willing to subsidize arts council operations, referring to plans for it to subsidize the new Barter facility in its initial years of existence — citing a figure of $2.2 million. In contrast, the SAC receives $87,500 per year in funding from Mount Airy.
The theatre construction cost is put at $3.5 million, with another $5 million or so required for interest on 20-year bond financing that would be utilized and fees, based on information earlier presented. Figures also have come to light showing the city would pay operational costs of the new theatre, or the yearly subsidies mentioned by Jones, to range from a low of $100,000 to a high of $600,000 annually.
Infrastructure costs of $4.5 million to improve streets, storm drains and other features of the overall redevelopment area are envisioned as well, minus a grant awarded for that component in the $700,000 range from the Golden Leaf Foundation.
Jones also questioned the attendance projections for the proposed 500-seat Barter facility, an average of 325 per show for its planned 250 performances annually. She said this was inflated and would exceed what the Barter does in its own hometown of Abingdon, Virginia.
Along with concerns raised by some citizens that the project will subject city residents to huge property tax hikes, the SAC official wondered whether Mount Airy can support two arts organizations.
“I am not aware of a town this size that has competing arts venues,” Jones said of concerns that also include possible negative impacts on public donations.
Barter rep responds
A rosier picture was painted Thursday night by Steve Powell, a Barter Theatre consultant.
Powell took the position that the Barter’s presence here would draw more visitors to town and benefit everyone with increased sales tax and other revenues/growth, using the analogy of rising water causing all boats to ride the crest. “I guarantee that this will happen in this town.”
The Barter consultant also referred to a past study showing a need for more night life in Mount Airy which the new theatre would help supply.
“You’re a one-horse town,” Powell said of the Mayberry mystique present here which he predicts will diminish within the next 10 years as older “Andy Griffith Show” fans fade. Mayberry is great, he said, “but you need diversity — you need other markets.”
Powell said the Barter effort should be viewed as an economic-development project that would help bring new life to the Spencer’s property. Without it, “you have a big blue building,” he said of the baby-blue paint scheme of the former infant apparel manufacturer.
Powell said further that the theatre would draw extra traffic from larger cities in North Carolina, which was challenged by Jones due to the competing facilities located in those places.
“The actual new marketing area being referenced is filled with theatres people will have to pass to get here,” she said.
Citizen comments Thursday night indicated a mixture of support and criticism of the Barter plan. While some believe the project represents a great opportunity for Mount Airy, others are wary of the funding impact on taxpayers.
Randy Collins, president and CEO of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of the Barter Theatre, which he said has a “proven record of success in Abingdon” where it was founded in 1933.
“The community needs to see something positive happen on the Spencer’s property other than demolition,” Collins said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.