Along with formerly skeptical city commissioners who are firmly behind a new plan for bringing a Barter Theatre expansion to Mount Airy are citizens who have been some of the project’s sternest critics.
The latter includes two people who vehemently opposed earlier proposals for the 85-year-old theater operation to venture outside its home base of Abingdon, Virginia, for the first time ever: Tom Koch and Paul Eich. Eich has been a longtime observer of city budget operations and frequently speaks on various issues during council public forums.
Koch has come on the scene more recently, but along with Eich and others has been outspoken about a recent 12-cent property tax hike and how the redevelopment of the former Spencer’s industrial property, including the Barter, has been handled.
The pair’s opposition was evident during a public forum just last month when Koch complained that “expenses are out of control.”
“I’m sick of hearing about Barter,” Eich said at the same meeting on July 19, reflecting a belief among Koch and other critics that the theater plan exposed city taxpayers to too much financial risk.
“Emotions do not generate dollars,” Eich added last month in reference to how equally fervent Barter supporters were not considering the long-term financial implications for Mount Airy due to it shouldering much of the funding burden.
That was then and this is now, and both Eich and Koch spoke Thursday night in favor of the latest plan. It shifts 88 percent of the costs for the Spencer’s project and Barter theater expansion to the private sector, namely the developers of a 90-room hotel also eyed for the former textile-manufacturing property.
This is the result of meshing two proposals. One was formulated by an ad hoc team made up of Gene Rees and two other individuals and the other by the new group Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy, which originated largely due to secrecy surrounding the project.
“It has limited city liability,” Eich said Thursday night, when both he and Koch addressed the issue not during the forum but as part of a planned presentation on the combined plan.
Eich said after reviewing it, he is “convinced” that if all the details are worked out, the deal will be good for Mount Airy.
Longtime attendees of council meetings might have thought they were in some strange parallel universe to see Eich, who even became emotional at times Thursday night, embrace a city plan so warmly.
“Yes, it’s still the same Paul Eich,” he assured the large audience assembled.
Only this time around with the Barter, in contrast to a long list of other issues, Eich says he is “not a naysayer.”
Koch offered similar comments.
He reminded the audience that the initial Barter proposal emerging during the winter was a bad plan, but that the new one has him singing a different tune.
This is because of the ad hoc team’s acceptance of recommendations from Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy which puts the city in a much better position from a risk standpoint, Koch said.
“They have reduced this thing to such an extent that Mount Airy’s exposure is capped.”
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.
In a 5-0 vote Thursday night, the city commissioners decided to move ahead with the new concept, while acknowledging there are many details still to be finalized.
Long-term outlook unclear
The plan does require Mount Airy to enter into a five-year lease for the theater after its completion, at annual payments with an estimated range of $540,000 to $580,000. The city would lease the facility from the hotel group, its owner, and sublease it to Barter Theatre, as the operator.
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.
Surry County officials also might participate in the effort.
What happens after the five years is unclear at this point.
“After the five-year lease, it would be up to the city to decide what to do,” Mayor David Rowe said Friday. If the theater operation proves unsuccessful, this might include Mount Airy dropping out and letting the developers take over from there.
“The decision would be reached at that time,” the mayor added. “There are several options.”
Nothing in documents outlining the proposal suggests any long-term commitment being required of the city government.
Rowe also said Friday that Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy played a key role in what has transpired over the past few days with the devising of a universally acceptable plan.
“If it hadn’t been for them, this probably never would have happened,” he added. “They are really the catalyst to make it all come together — both committees worked hard.”
The mayor stressed that it should be kept in mind the plan at hand is still a long way from a finished product.
One thing is for sure: Supporters and opponents who have vigorously debated the financial aspects of the Barter expansion since early this year are certainly more unified than they were previously.
Eich said that when all the details in the plan are worked out, it could “unify the city.”
In addition to the statement made by unanimous votes among the council on various aspects of the Spencer’s redevelopment, that sentiment was echoed later in the meeting by Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, who also grew tearful at one point, as did Rowe.
“I’ve been praying for unity,” Brinkley said.
“And I think I’ve actually seen unity come together tonight.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.