After a proposed Barter Theatre expansion in Mount Airy was rejected by state regulators in March as too risky, city officials sprang into action with plans to re-approach the North Carolina Government Commission using a new strategy.
This included the commissioners voting on April 19 to provide $105,000 for financial adviser and legal services to prepare for a return visit to Raleigh.
Officials’ stated hope was that by providing more complete information presenting the Barter project in a better light, financial analysts of the state oversight agency would look more favorably on the effort — part of redevelopment plans for former Spencer’s industrial property.
In the midst of this regrouping by municipal officials, led by Commissioner Steve Yokeley and Mayor David Rowe, a woman seeking to build a hotel on the Spencer’s site was urging rapid action by city government.
“For my hotel project to move forward, several things need to happen. There needs to be a timeline that my development team, underwriters and investors can depend on with a reasonable level of certainly,” Dana Bryson said in a March 30 letter to city officials.
Bryson, owner of K2 Hotels and Services, plans a 90-room four-star hotel, using historic tax credits available for mill site rehabilitation. She frequently has cited the need for a “demand generator” such as the Barter to provide customers for her lodging establishment.
“We need to have meaningful conversations that produce some solutions by May 1,” Bryson further advised in her late-March letter, “otherwise I will not have time to meet the construction deadlines to complete my project utilizing the tax credits.”
But the calendar now says June, and not only has there been no return engagement with the Local Government Commission (LGC) by Mount Airy representatives, the date set by Bryson has passed without apparent repercussions.
The reason for both appears to be an alternate plan being eyed by Bryson and city officials. It’s one in which the hotel developer would construct the Barter Theatre expansion — as opposed to the municipality doing so — and then lease that facility to Mount Airy.
“She has made that offer, yes,” Mayor David Rowe said of Bryson.
The mayor said the scenario in which the hotel developer would construct the $13.5 million theatre represents an effort by “some people working on a different approach to the problem” with the Local Government Commission.
“It is a possibility,” the mayor added regarding the building of the 500-seat expansion by Bryson and not the municipality. “That’s one way of solving some of the problems.”
For the immediate future at least, this alternative would shift the Barter financial burden from a public to private entity
However, City Attorney Hugh Campbell — who has worked closely with the Spencer’s redevelopment — said in recent days that any such alternate plan is not an attempt to make an end-run around the Local Government Commission.
“Well, the city would never do anything to circumvent the LGC because of the power of the LGC,” Campbell said.
He mentioned that it would not be in Mount Airy’s best interests to alienate the Local Government Commission, an oversight and debt-management agency that must approve financing arrangements by communities planning such major projects using bonds or loans.
The city attorney pointed out that the LGC’s approval would be needed for other efforts in Mount Airy in the future — including the Barter Theatre expansion.
“Even a lease of more than five years would have to be approved by the LGC,” Campbell said of that possible involvement by the city. Reports also have been circulating in the community that such a scenario would call for Mount Airy to buy the theatre at some point.
Bryson did not respond to a voice-mail message seeking comment and more information about her possible construction of the theatre.
At last report, Mayor Rowe said much was still up in the air concerning that plan. “It is being, I guess you could use the term, fleshed out,” he said, and not finalized.
“It is a multi-faceted problem,” the mayor said of the Barter issue.
Rowe compared it to the hydra, a many-headed serpent in Greek mythology — when one “head” or problem gets cut off, another pops up in its place, he said.
The mayor said any ultimate solution must be approved by the Barter Theatre governing board and the city commissioners, while also being acceptable to local citizens.
Fundraising effort possible
Another recent indicator of the shift in strategy for the Barter Theatre expansion came during the commissioners’ last meeting on May 17, when they approved a budget amendment of $35,000 related to the project.
The 3-2 vote set aside that sum for a potential feasibility study for a fundraising campaign to aid the expansion, with commissioners Jim Armbrister and Jon Cawley dissenting.
When the project and ways of funding it were unveiled during the winter, the plans called for a $2 million fundraising campaign by Barter officials to help pay for the theatre.
The fact that the city government has set aside the $35,000 for a possible feasibility study leading to a funding campaign reflects a consensus of the board and mayor “to keep the project moving,” the city attorney said. Campbell said this addresses recent developments and changes in the scope of the project.
However, the exact role of the fundraising aspect is unclear and also is on hold for now, with Campbell saying no feasibility study had been contracted.
“I would say at this point it has been approved by the board,” Campbell said of the $35,000.
Yet there is no plan for using it “until we can define a clear public purpose for that expenditure,” he explained.
“There is a legal question of whether or not the city should expend that money,” Campbell said, “or whether it should be handled another way.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.