City councilman backs Barter plan

By Tom Joyce -
Yokeley -

With a vote on the fate of a local Barter theater expansion looming this afternoon, a Mount Airy councilman who supports the plan says city officials will be making a big mistake if they let it die.

“I think it will be a tragedy and a travesty if the Barter Theatre is not approved,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said Wednesday on the eve of the decision. It is scheduled during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners today at 2 p.m.

Yokeley, who in addition to discussing the project Wednesday penned a lengthy letter outlining his concerns, said Mount Airy will be passing up a chance to not only bring a regional theater operation to town, but all the other economic growth generated as a result.

The Barter is now based in Abingdon, Virginia, and the expansion to Mount Airy — where plans call for at least 250 shows to be staged annually in a 500-seat facility on former Spencer’s industrial property — would be its first ever outside that town.

No tax increase

The South Ward commissioner now in his third term is concerned about the potential impact not approving the Barter expansion would have as a whole on efforts to redevelop the Spencer’s property that the city government bought in May 2014.

A four-star hotel/banquet center and upscale apartments also are planned there.

Yokeley also took aim Wednesday at claims that the Barter project to cost millions of dollars will require a huge increase in municipal property taxes, a concern voiced by some citizens as well as fellow members of the board of commissioners.

In the face of those fears, Yokeley says he is prepared to pledge that this will not occur.

“I will be happy making a motion that there will not be a property tax increase related to the Barter Theatre,” he said, pointing out that this will be avoided by extra revenues generated from the development.

“And I feel very comfortable saying that,” Yokeley added. “I would say that property taxes won’t have to increase.”

He believes the expense of building the state-of-the art theater will be offset by increased property tax revenues from the site, additional sales tax revenues resulting from the development, profits from performances and other economic growth expected.

“There have been several restaurants that have recently said they’d like to come to Mount Airy” if the theater materializes, Yokeley said of one example. “People will be coming into town to spend money.”

Hopes also are being pinned on an anticipated tax on prepared foods and beverages in the city which would generate more than $400,000 per year to help offset the costs of developing the theater.

However, Yokeley said Wednesday that this source is not absolutely essential. State permission would be required to hold a referendum on the food and beverage tax, which could be defeated by city voters.

The most recent calculations by city staff members on the Barter costs were referred to in written statements issued by Yokeley. He thinks these figures show “that any previously calculated property tax increase would be much less than what was feared with the original projections.

”I furthermore think it shows that the Barter Theater project is very economically feasible and will be an income generator instead of being a tax burden.”

Yokeley added that “one negative that I have heard is that the Barter is too risky. There is always some risk in getting rewards. Normally, the greater the risk, the greater the reward. The Barter is a proven entity, has been very successful for over 80 years and would bring amazing rewards to the vast majority of the people in Mount Airy. In this case, the risks are very low with the rewards being very high.”

Entire Spencer’s effort at stake

Yokeley fears the defeat of the Barter Theatre proposal would produce disastrous results.

Dana Bryson, who is seeking to develop the hotel on former Spencer’s property, has hinted that her project could be derailed if the Barter plan is not approved, since traffic for it is being counted on to make the lodging establishment a success.

Bryson said during a recent meeting that room demand already is declining in Mount Airy — and unless there is a new economic driver, such as the theater — the hotel won’t be viable.

If the plan for it is abandoned, Yokeley said this likely also will be the case with the apartments.

“I’m just very much afraid that if we don’t go forward, we will lose all the investment that has been made,” he said.

“We’re going to be stuck with the big blue (Spencer’s) buildings we’ve been working on for four years and have nothing to show for it except a lot of time wasted and money wasted.”

Then city officials will be back to Square One on the redevelopment effort, with little prospects to fall back on, according to Yokeley.

“Do you think that other developers are going to want to come to Mount Airy after the fiasco that has been developing?”

‘Naysayers’ targeted

Yokeley also is bothered by certain perceptions in the community about the Barter proposal.

“I’ve just been really concerned that there’s so much negative publicity and misinformation out there about how it’s financed,” he said, referring in particular to recent reports about a huge property tax increase. “A lot of that has been taken from unnamed sources.”

Yokeley also took a swipe at what he termed “chronic complainers.”

“We hear them all the time on many varied topics,” he stated. “These individuals are masters of using rumors, innuendos, partial facts, misrepresentations, erroneous suppositions, total falsehoods, comments taken out of context, attempts at character assassination and their own mendacious comments to spread misleading and absolutely false information.”

Yokeley accused those individuals of being “against everything” that arises.

“In reality, they are just a very vocal minority. They constantly criticize any attempts to make things better for all,” he commented.

“I would like to encourage these chronic naysayers to offer some positive suggestions at any time and to let us know what they want to do instead of what they don’t want to do.”

Public support cited

Commissioner Yokeley was hopeful Wednesday about the outcome of today’s scheduled decision in the Municipal Building. He will need two other votes besides his to make the Barter Theatre project a reality.

“I will say if the commissioners vote on public opinion we have received, it will be approved by a wide margin,” he said.

“It’s been hundreds of contacts that we’ve had,” Yokeley related, “overwhelmingly in favor of having the Barter.”

No hike in property taxes pledged

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.