Secret committee working on Barter deal

By Tom Joyce -
Longtime Mount Airy businessman Gene Rees, pictured in a file photo, is a member of the three-man team. -

Along with other personnel and resources deployed for the mission of redeveloping the former Spencer’s industrial property in downtown Mount Airy, an “ad hoc team” has been on the job — whose existence wasn’t known to the general public.

Despite being formed in the aftermath of state regulators’ rejection of a plan to bring a Barter Theatre expansion to town as part of that redevelopment, which occurred on March 22, the presence of the committee has been revealed only recently.

That was this week, after the group — composed of Gene Rees; Bryan Grote, who is associated with Mercator Advisers, a North Main Street consulting firm; and Barry Schneider — met with city officials behind closed doors for hours after a council meeting last Thursday.

Rees is a longtime downtown Mount Airy businessman, while Grote and Schneider are described by one source as “high-level negotiators.”

A leaked copy of the presentation they made during the closed session last Thursday night to the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, which is about 20 pages, was obtained by The Mount Airy News.

It states that the ad hoc team was created to evaluate a proposed new economic-development approach for the Spencer’s property now owned by the city government, which includes plans for a hotel and the theater. An ad hoc group is defined as one formed for a specific problem or task.

Other stated objectives by the team were to address concerns by the commissioners, citizens and Local Government Commission analysts, who rejected the Barter expansion as too risky, and provide findings to the commissioners and key city staffers.

After the team’s presentation to Mount Airy officials last week, it and city representatives including Mayor David Rowe and Commissioner Jon Cawley, along with persons involved with the hotel project, also were scheduled to meet with Surry County officials Wednesday night.

The Surry County Board of Commissioners notified the Mount Airy News it would be meeting in closed session to discuss potential economic development, but gave no additional details.

Rowe said that meeting would be focused on economic development involving the Spencer’s project. “It concerns the theater, yes,” he said of one aspect.

Officials announced beforehand that this meeting also would occur behind closed doors, which reflects one key objective of the team. It is to involve the county government in a partnership for what the team terms the Spencer Economic Development Initiative, in order to “reduce risk and ensure success.”

Its presentation includes charts showing projected property tax and sales revenues that could be realized by the county through such a partnership in exchange for annual financial support weighed against those benefits.

The team also seeks to reduce Mount Airy’s risks by shifting responsibilities for financing, construction, tax credit compliance and others to private developers undertaking Spencer’s projects. In addition to the hotel and theater, an upscale apartment complex is eyed for the site.

Team’s origin not public

Given that the ad hoc team has quietly been busy in recent months, many citizens might wonder how it arose in the first place — since no discussion or action to create it occurred during any public meetings of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.

“The ad hoc team was formed as a result of our meeting with the LGC,” Mayor Rowe said Wednesday in reference to the Local Government Commission.

“It was not really done in secret,” Rowe added of the team’s origin. “It was done in closed session.”

After the March meeting between Mount Airy representatives and analysts with the Local Government Commission, which must approve projects utilizing long-term loan or bond financing that were proposed for the Barter expansion, city officials regrouped.

This included plans for Commissioner Steve Yokeley and Mayor Rowe to develop a revised strategy for re-approaching the state commission and attempting a better outcome.

The formation of the ad hoc team was part of that effort, albeit one that was not made public.

“It was our intention to do this at the appropriate time,” the mayor said Wednesday, explaining that he hoped some kind of deal would be worked out regarding redevelopment efforts before the team’s role was disclosed.

While no breakthrough had transpired along those lines at last report, Rowe believes the ad hoc team has been effective. “Yes, we’ve accomplished a great deal.”

The three members of the team are not being paid. “They are doing this just as citizens,” Rowe said.

Although more than four months has elapsed since the Local Government Commission meeting, no date has been set for the return session.

“No, because we still don’t have everything worked out,” the mayor said Wednesday, stressing that the meeting with county leaders later that day was “pretty critical.”

Rowe said the redevelopment matter could be on the agenda for the next regular meeting of the city council next Thursday.

Longtime Mount Airy businessman Gene Rees, pictured in a file photo, is a member of the three-man team. Mount Airy businessman Gene Rees, pictured in a file photo, is a member of the three-man team.
Committee formed in closed session

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.