After much debate and pitfalls that have consumed most of this year, a Barter Theatre expansion appears headed to Mount Airy through actions taken Thursday night by the city commissioners in multiple 5-0 votes.
“This is sort of a pivotal moment in the history of Mount Airy,” Mayor David Rowe said regarding the scope of what occurred, which was greeted by loud applause from the audience. It will set in motion plans for the Barter as well as a hotel and upscale apartments on the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown which is owned by the city government.
“Every time I thought this was dead, something came along to change it,” Rowe said of an effort to build the 500-seat theater, the most heavily debated part of the redevelopment project which divided the community.
And the game-changer for Thursday night’s favorable action was a plan recently developed by an ad hoc team of local citizens with financial expertise which has been assisting city officials with the Spencer’s project, and another one devised by a citizens group.
The plans by the ad hoc team and Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy were blended during negotiations earlier this week, and the result was a concept that greatly reduces the risk for the city government and taxpayers.
A main catalyst involves the primary funding for the Spencer’s project coming from hotel developers Dana Bryson and Gray Angell, who also will finance the theater construction. This had been hinted at for months, after members of the North Carolina Local Government Commission, a state oversight agency, rejected an earlier plan in which the municipality would have had the funding burden.
The new arrangement calls for total capital investment in the Spencer’s redevelopment of $51 million, of which only $6 million — or 12 percent would be public investment.
It does require Mount Airy to enter into a five-year lease for the theater after the project’s completion, at annual payments with an estimated range of $540,000 to $580,000.
During that initial period, the city’s input will aid developers with the ramp-up phase of the project, including helping to ensure the success of $5 million to $6 million in vital tax credit financing for the theater component. The Barter is considered critical to the overall success of the Spencer’s project by providing a demand generator for the 90-room hotel.
In addition to the five-year lease, city officials will supply $2 million in operating support for the theater during that period, based on discussion at Thursday night’s heavily attended meeting in the Municipal Building. The Surry County government also is considering participating in the project, it was noted.
Many of the financial details are yet to be finalized, with the commissioners agreeing 5-0 to establish what Mayor David Rowe called “a sense of the board” to move forward and work out the details.
“It’s not perfect — it needs lots of refining,” local businessman Gene Rees, one of the three members of the ad hoc team, said of the plan during a presentation at the meeting.
And while various financial scenarios identified must be fully vetted to ensure the soundness of the plan, Rees believes it greatly reduces the risk to the municipality compared to initial proposals presented during the winter.
Board members satisfied
Commissioner Jim Armbrister, who voted against an initial agreement along with Commissioner Jon Cawley on March 1 — resulting in a 3-2 decision in favor of it — said Thursday night that he favors the latest concept.
“I fully, fully support the project,” said Armbrister, who added that he is “extremely comfortable” with the figures presented.
He also praised the fact that a “public plan” resulted, one assembled by members of the community.
Commissioner Cawley also joined in the unanimous approval Thursday night by saying “I am excitedly supportive.“
“We had five commissioners that wanted this project to work,” Cawley commented, although they had differing viewpoints about accomplishing this. “The answer came from local people and that shouldn’t be overlooked.”
Cawley also referred to the 3-2 decision in March and how it led to the ultimate approval. “To get to this point, it was a good thing that two people did” cast dissenting votes.
The split vote was a concern of the Local Government Commission, which Cawley pointed out won’t be a factor when the state oversight agency is asked to approve the new plan.
Commissioner Steve Yokeley cited the hundreds of hours devoted to the project by the ad hoc team, and also mentioned how others joined the process. “And it seems like everybody wants to work together.”
Also Thursday night, the commissioners voted 5-0 to transfer property that had been inadvertently omitted from the development plans and which also failed to be included in a June vote that attempted to correct that oversight. But the transfer of a building in what is known as Lot 4 required at least a 4-1 vote under the city charter, and the decision was 3-2 with Armbrister and Cawley dissenting.
The extra property is needed to accommodate the size of the theatre.
Thursday’s discussion also touched on the dissension the Barter project has generated in the community, and how actions during the meeting might represent a new beginning.
“I hope this will unite the city,” the mayor said.
“If it accomplishes that, it’s yet another miracle.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.