A meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners turned into an unofficial public hearing on a proposed Barter Theatre expansion in the city, with mostly bad reviews for it offered.
One opponent of the plan even went so far Thursday night as to urge like-minded fellow citizens to approach three commissioners who continue to back it, Shirley Brinkley, Dean Brown and Steve Yokeley.
“If you see Commissioner Yokeley, Brinkley and Brown anywhere, tell them what you think,” said Tom Koch. He is a local citizen who previously has criticized city government actions concerning the redevelopment of the former Spencer’s textile complex downtown and the related Barter effort, along with a recent 12-cent property tax increase.
Koch (pronounced “Cook”), a former member of the city school board, renewed his attack on Spencer’s/Barter during the public forum portion of Thursday night’s council meeting.
Although no discussion or decisions related to the Abingdon, Virginia-based theater operation were on the agenda, the forum quickly became a mini-referendum on the expansion issue that has divided the city since early this year.
Several speakers, including one ardent Barter supporter, addressed the matter — some saying that they did so only after hearing, and becoming aroused by, what a previous citizen had to say.
The idea of developing the theater on the former Spencer’s property, now owned by city government, was debated in a series of heavily attended public meetings during the winter. This led to a 3-2 vote by the commissioners on March 1 to proceed with the first-ever expansion of the Barter outside its home base of Abingdon with a 500-seat facility here.
Then on March 22, analysts with the Local Government Commission, a state agency that must approve major projects by localities using bonds or loans as financing, rejected Mount Airy’s plan as too risky.
The total financial exposure to Mount Airy has been reported as $5 million to $13 million, counting required infrastructure and other expenses and the receiving of tax credits to aid new uses for former textile mills which would offset part of the expense.
Since then, there are indications Dana Bryson, the developer of a hotel also planned for the Spencer’s property — offering rooms for Barter patrons — might bankroll the theater rather than city government, which would still be involved through some type of lease arrangement.
This process has been shrouded in secrecy, with details kept even from commissioners Jim Armbrister and Jon Cawley, who voted against the Barter plan in March.
Why not 601?
Koch took aim Thursday light at the proposed location of the theater, the rising expenses involved with it and the Spencer’s redevelopment and who stands to gain from all this.
“If the Barter is really going to be good for Mount Airy,” he said of a belief by supporters, “why not build it on U.S. 601?”
Koch also mentioned the taxpayer dollars committed toward the Spencer’s redevelopment so far, which includes $4 million to $4.5 million for infrastructure improvements. According to figures presented by Koch, more than $7 million has been spent.
“Expenses are out of control,” he said. “We’re spending millions of dollars and the primary beneficiary will be the Bryson hotel group.”
Koch also cited subsidies that the city government has agreed to provide for the theater during its initial years of operation.
“This just isn’t right,” added Koch, who said he hopes citizens who oppose the Barter movement will match the enthusiasm shown by supporters of the Shepherd’s House when an expansion of the homeless facility recently was threatened.
“Because this is one rotten plan.”
Koch’s remarks prompted a rebuttal during Thursday night’s public forum by Gary Pruett, who has voiced support for the Barter project at multiple meetings because of its tourism potential.
“I’m not going to let the comments on the Barter Theatre … go unchallenged,” Pruett said of statements by Koch.
One he reacted to is the idea of the theater being located in the heavily traveled business corridor along U.S. 601. Pruett said “noise pollution” would be a problem there, requiring the sound-proofing of the building. “You will spend a fortune.”
Pruett conceded that certain financial aspects of the Spencer’s redevelopment have been shaky, noting “exorbitant legal fees” paid to a Charlotte attorney to guide the process. That cost originally was put at $37,500 but ended up in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.
“When you look at the dollars and cents, it is questionable,” Pruett said.
However, he indicated that having a tourism draw such as the Barter Theatre would provide innumerable intangible as well as financial benefits over the long term that should be weighed against the city’s initial investment. “Dollars and cents are not the only thing we’re talking about here.”
In defense of the financials, Pruett said the combined package of a hotel and theater would “bring substantial changes in the economy of Mount Airy.” This would include conventions and major meetings held at the four-star hotel and its planned banquet center and the reaping of benefits such as increased sales tax revenues and property values, according to the supporter.
Countering the counter
Pruett’s stance sparked another citizen to comment Thursday night.
“I didn’t want to speak tonight, but after Mr. Pruett, I’ve got to,” Paul Eich said after making his way to the podium.
“Emotions do not generate dollars,” Eich said in response.
“I’m sick of hearing about Barter,” he added, before directing a comment to the board of commissioners and the theater supporters it harbors: “I just wish you could get three of you to vote that way.”
John Pritchard, another public forum participant, criticized the lack of transparency surrounding recent developments, saying it is part of a pattern also reflected in budget and other actions. “We’ve all seen too much secrecy surrounding Spencer’s and the Barter deal.”
Also speaking during the forum was Gene Clark, who recently spearheaded the formation of a group called Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy in response to concerns including the secrecy.
Clark said he, too, was troubled by the projected costs of the Barter, $850,000 over the first 10 years — or $8.5 million total — based on figures presented by city officials in February. That also takes into account $2 million proposed to come from a fundraising campaign by Barter representatives.
It was suggested by Clark that public funding of such ventures is inherently problematic. In contrast, Clark said local businessman Gene Rees, who also acquired part of the Spencer’s property for condominiums, has finished his project and asked for no money from city government.
Clark told Mount Airy officials to “cut your losses” and turn the Spencer’s redevelopment and investment over to the private sector.
“We don’t know what we’re doing.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.