Officials demand details on Barter deal

By Tom Joyce -
Cawley -
Armbrister -

In an apparent case of the left hand not knowing what the right one is doing, two Mount Airy officials want answers about a change in Barter Theatre expansion plans being kept secret from them and the public.

“It’s not being shared with the board,” Commissioner Jim Armbrister said of information surrounding a new effort to bring the Barter to town involving behind-the-scenes work by a fellow commissioner, Steve Yokeley, which deviates from original plans.

“What’s going on is totally isolated from city staff and the (full) board,” Armbrister added regarding the possibility that a developer seeking to build a hotel on the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown also will construct the theater there.

Initially, the city government planned to spearhead that project — which was derailed by state regulators in March as being too risky financially.

While word of the possible private development of the theater has been circulating in the community, Armbrister and Commissioner Jon Cawley say they are being kept in the dark on the details along with the public.

“And that’s not proper,” Armbrister said during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners Thursday night after the issue, not on the agenda, was raised unexpectedly by Cawley.

“We’re not in the know,” Armbrister said of the board as a whole. “That’s just not the way business is done.”

The new plan, never presented publicly, could have Dana Bryson, owner of K2 Hotels and Services, who plans to construct a 90-room four-star hotel on Spencer’s property, also initiating the expansion of the Abingdon, Virginia-based Barter Theatre.

Under this plan, the expansion would occur privately, without public financing under the scrutiny of the North Carolina Local Government Commission, the implications of which concern Cawley.

There are reports about a lease-purchase option, in which the municipality would lease the theater from the developer, after money to build it was supplied by a local bank, and later buy the theater.

Deviates from plans

Yet Cawley seems more troubled by the fact this scenario differs greatly from a direction earlier taken regarding the seeking of approval from the Local Government Commission (LGC).

After the original agreement for the municipality to build the $13.5 million Barter facility was adopted in a 3-2 vote by the commissioners in early March, with Cawley and Armbrister dissenting, it was reviewed by Local Government Commission analysts.

A pre-application committee of the LGC, an arm of the state treasurer’s office that reviews long-range financing plans by localities to ensure such projects are sound, ruled on March 22 that it would not support Mount Airy’s Barter involvement.

That led to the board giving permission for Commissioner Yokeley to re-approach the state regulators with more details. Yokeley believes the city representatives who initially met with the LGC “were not the right people and they did not have the right information,” summed up Cawley.

Yokeley and Mayor David Rowe pledged to pursue a second meeting with the state commission in Raleigh as soon as possible. This was accompanied by the commissioners voting on April 19 to provide $105,000 for financial adviser and legal services to help prepare for this.

But that meeting has yet to occur, almost three months after the first.

“It seems to me that what we gave permission to happen did not happen and is not going to happen, and they’ve gone with a different plan,” Cawley said of Yokeley and others during Thursday night’s meeting.

Yokeley and Rowe responded to Cawley’s statement that the second visit could occur in a couple of months. “We’re not ready (now),” Yokeley said.

Deadline issue

Cawley also said the project has deviated from the original plans concerning a deadline announced for the Spencer’s redevelopment to qualify for historic tax credits available for such efforts.

“We’ve been told for about a year or more that in order to be approved for tax credits, the Barter construction had to start on June 18, 2018, or thereabouts,” he said of a date now just five days away.

“How many times have we heard in the interim of all this that we have to do this now?” Cawley said of related funding and other decisions made.

“We have to approve this money for this or this person for this because construction has to begin by the eighteenth of the month,” he added. “Is that no longer true?”

“I think that is still true, from what we understand,” Yokeley replied. He explained that the hotel developer’s application for tax credits includes former Spencer’s buildings eyed for both the hotel and theater, and requirements will be met with her planned starting of work on the inside.

“She will do enough to qualify for the tax credits,” Yokeley said of Bryson.

Cawley also mentioned that Bryson had informed city officials that they needed to produce some meaningful solutions regarding the Barter by May 1 for her hotel project to proceed. She cited the need for a “demand generator” such as the theater to supply lodgers for that establishment.

“Does she have a demand generator?” Cawley asked Thursday night.

“She does not at this time,” the mayor answered.

Secrecy criticized

Armbrister also said the role now being played by Yokeley exceeds the boundaries of what previously was discussed.

“We’re making new deals after the fact,” he said.

Both Armbrister and Cawley believe a veil of secrecy that has surrounded the Barter project all along is flawed.

“This whole process, it all should have been out in the open,” Cawley said, with related discussions conducted publicly.

“Can we not make this issue public?” Armbrister asked. “Because it is already public.”

Yokeley defended any secrecy involved by pointing out that the project relates to economic development, an allowable reason for details of it to be discussed during closed sessions.

(Usually, that provision is invoked when one community is competing with another for a new industry, requiring incentive packages or similar information to be kept secret.)

Yokeley added that he was respecting the wishes of the hotel developer in maintaining privacy.

However, Cawley charged that Yokeley has not even kept everyone on the city board properly informed — behind closed doors or otherwise.

Although Yokeley might be counting on another 3-2 vote to approve any alternate plan devised, “we still have a right to know,” Cawley said.

“You (Yokeley) have got the votes, so you don’t care,” he added while arguing that Yokeley should still advise the others about what is occurring. “We are as much a part of it as you are.”

“There are some proposals that will be brought before this board,” Yokeley said at one point.

“We are the ones that should be working out the details,” said Cawley.



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.