The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners approved an agreement Thursday afternoon, by a 3-2 vote, which will bring a Barter Theatre expansion to town.
“I think this is a historic day for the city of Mount Airy,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said after the decision made before a standing-room-only crowd at the Municipal Building. “I have no doubt it’s the largest single economic-development project ever in Mount Airy.”
A 500-seat theatre is to be developed on the former Spencer’s industrial property bought by the city government in 2014 along with a boutique hotel with 90 rooms, its grand ballroom seating 350 and an upscale apartment complex with 67 units and possibly more later.
Yokeley this represents an investment of more than $40 million in downtown Mount Airy which will be mostly private.
“I’m very much in favor of it, its potential,” he said of the Barter Theatre’s role in that mix.
Mayor David Rowe referred to the decision as “momentous” for Mount Airy.
Not everyone happy
But Thursday’s split vote reflected a controversy that has swirled around the possible Barter project since it was first announced publicly in late January, over concerns mainly related to the costs involved.
In addition to Yokeley, the agreement with the Barter Foundation was supported by commissioners Shirley Brinkley and Dean Brown. The board’s Jim Armbrister and Jon Cawley cast the dissenting votes.
“Our city has been divided, and many harsh and hurtful things have been said,” Brinkley commented in reference to numerous Facebook and other online postings between supporters and critics of the plan.
“Some of you have tried to use fear tactics, which really aggravated me,” Commissioner Cawley said Thursday while surveying the crowded meeting room awaiting the vote. “This has weighed on me about as much as anything I’ve ever done.”
Thursday’s approval will facilitate the first-ever expansion of the Barter Theatre outside its home base of Abingdon, Virginia, where professional productions have been staged for nearly 85 years. Barter Theatre will stage a minimum of 250 shows per year locally, with the first anticipated performance to be in the summer of 2020.
Projections call for 82,250 tickets to be sold annually for local productions, with a portion of the price for each going to the city for debt reduction and a capital repair/maintenance fund for the facility.
Thursday’s vote obligates the city to build a state-of-the-art theatre costing about $13.5 million. That is expected to be reduced to a net of around $3.6 million due to the receiving of tax credits involved with the transformation of the former textile complex into its new uses.
The contract also requires the municipality to pay yearly subsidies to offset losses anticipated in the initial years of the Barter Theatre’s operation here, for which the highest amount is $600,000, at first, to be reduced over time.
Barter officials plan, in conjunction with the city government, to raise $2 million through a private fundraising campaign to offset the project’s expense.
There have been varying opinions about whether city property taxes will have to be raised to fund the theatre project. Thursday’s discussion indicated that this could be avoided through a 40-year financing plan offered through Surrey Bank and Trust involving a USDA community facilities loan.
Yokeley believes factors including increased property tax revenues from the Spencer’s redevelopment site and other growth stemming from the Barter Theatre arrival — such as new restaurants — will help avoid a tax hike for citizens.
Commissioner Brown referenced the pros and cons of the project and all the deliberations leading to Thursday’s showdown vote, saying this represents just another defining chapter in Mount Airy history.
Brown, a local historian, said similar concerns were raised many years ago when officials debated whether to bring the railroad to town as well as other major developments such as a public water system.
“This is just another big event that is going to change Mount Airy,” he said.
In casting his “no” vote, Commissioner Armbrister questioned the revenue and other projections for the theatre plan, using terms such as “minimally researched” and “speculative.”
Armbrister also objected to the municipality subsidizing an out-of-town operation that will compete with existing local entities such as the Surry Arts Council.
He believes private investors would not sink their money into such a plan, yet it is somehow feasible to inject public funding into the venture.
“The Barter Theatre project is an extraordinarily high-risk maneuver,” added Armbrister, who said his first priority is to look out for municipal taxpayers.
That skepticism also was voiced by Bruce Springthorpe, one of seven citizens who offered opinions on the Barter Theatre project during a public forum portion of Thursday’s meeting.
Springthorpe said he disapproves of the idea of using taxpayer dollars to incentivize such efforts. “But if you’re going to do that, bring in something that will have good jobs,” he said in reference to the service-type positions to be mostly created by the redevelopment.
“I, too, would love to see manufacturing come back to Mount Airy,” another citizen, Gary Pruett, said in response to Springthorpe’s comments. Even if that did happen, the jobs would not be labor-intensive as before, but automated, Pruett said.
“We have to let go of the past to embrace the future — our future is in tourism.”
Former Surry County Manager Macon Sammons agreed when he spoke during the forum on the Barter plan, telling city officials that “this is the single-most-important opportunity that you’ve had.”
The question of the risk posed to Mount Airy taxpayers was addressed by another forum speaker, Randy Plitt. “We already took the biggest risk when we bought the Spencer’s property,” said Plitt, who believes the new theatre will “revitalize” tourism locally.
Mayor Rowe and other officials said that with the decision made, they hope the rift in the community can be closed and everyone will move on from here.
“I hope and pray that we all as citizens will get behind this and make it work,” said the mayor, who wants everyone five years from now to be able to appreciate what has occurred.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.