Spencer’s project to be updated

By Tom Joyce - tjoyce@mtairynews.com

A redevelopment project that has taken many twists and turns since Mount Airy officials decided in 2014 to purchase the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown will be discussed again today.

An update on the ongoing economic-development effort is scheduled during a meeting of the city board of commissioners which begins at 7 p.m. The regular first-Thursday meeting of the council each month normally is held at 2 p.m., but was changed for today’s session.

The matter regarding Spencer’s is one of the few items on tonight’s agenda, which also includes a public forum for citizens to speak immediately after the update on the economic-development project.

At the end of the regular portion of the meeting, city officials are slated to go into a closed session to discuss economic development and a legal matter.

Today’s Spencer’s update is coming on the heels of several recent developments regarding the project to transform the former textile-manufacturing complex for new uses. These include a four-star hotel, upscale apartments and a controversial expansion of the Barter Theatre based in Abingdon, Virginia.

A setback was dealt to the Barter portion of the equation in late March when representatives of a state oversight agency said they would not approve a plan by the city government to build the theater.

That had been suggested through a long-term loan or the issuing of bonds, which North Carolina Government Commission analysts ruled was too much of a risk for city taxpayers while posing none to Barter officials.

In the four months since that rejection, supporters of the Barter project on the city council have pursued other options, including having the theater built privately rather than publicly. But that approach also has been criticized by some citizens due to requiring Mount Airy to lease the facility at a hefty annual cost.

Multiple proposals

An ad hoc team recently has devised an alternative plan for the Spencer’s/Barter effort which it says is less risky to city government.

Documents assembled by the team cover a 10-year period in which the municipality would be subjected to annual expenses including lease costs and operating support for the theater.

Different scenarios are projected for the city’s net financial participation based on the success of the theater, including ticket sales.

These include one for a “low-performance” cost level of $755,393 (48,125 in full-year ticket sales) for the first year that would be drastically reduced after that to $205,805 at the end of the 10 years. Another using ticket sales of 68,750 forecasts first-year net costs for the municipality of $956,339, dropping to $443,081 the second year and 93,081 by the end of the decade.

After reviewing the alternate plan, an official of a recently formed watchdog group, Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy, said he did not think it differed greatly from initial Barter proposals presented in February.

“The same old stuff just dressed up in a new format,” said Gene Clark, the group’s treasurer.

Members of Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy reportedly have met in recent days with city representatives and members of the ad hoc team concerning another conceptual plan.

In a Wednesday Facebook posting, Commissioner Jon Cawley, who voted against an agreement for the Barter expansion on March 1, wrote that “I do believe a plan will be presented that will … be much better for the taxpayers.”

The proposal devised by the ad hoc team was pitched last week to Surry County officials during a closed session after earlier being presented to Mount Airy leaders.

Afterward, County Manager Chris Knopf acknowledged that the matter was not scheduled for action on any future agendas of the Surry commissioners in response to that 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.