Recent comments by Mount Airy officials suggest that the new group Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy played an instrumental role in the approval of a new concept for bringing the Barter Theatre to town.
But the group did not have such a role and also questions the direction now being taken with the proposed Barter expansion, according to two of its key members.
To illustrate this, one of them, John Pritchard, paraphrased a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain when the author reacted to rumors of his death:
“The reports of our endorsement of last Thursday’s Barter Theatre plan have been more than greatly exaggerated,” Pritchard said of a measure presented to the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners during an Aug. 2 meeting.
“We’re not all singing from the same hymn book yet,” added Gene Clark, who joined Pritchard Thursday afternoon for an interview to clarify the position of Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy.
That group, of which Clark is treasurer, emerged about two months ago in response to the city government’s handling of redevelopment efforts for the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown which it now owns — including a possible Barter expansion — and other issues.
Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy, which included about 15 members at last report, injected itself into recent discussions regarding the financing of the theater, with state regulators having rejected an earlier proposal as too risky for the municipality.
An alternative concept for reducing the city’s risk also was devised in recent months by a three-member ad hoc team composed of longtime downtown businessman Gene Rees and two recognized financial experts.
When the city commissioners voted 5-0 on Aug. 2 to adopt that framework in proceeding toward a final plan, it was portrayed as a mesh of proposals offered by the ad hoc and citizens groups.
“It wasn’t quite like it was represented,” Clark said of that portrayal.
He and Pritchard say that while they did meet with developers of a hotel also eyed for the Spencer’s site in the days before the vote, recommendations they have for the Barter component weren’t incorporated into the plan presented.
Among other concerns, Citizens for Transparent Mount Airy objected to requiring the municipality to enter into a long-term lease, initially set at 20 years but reduced to five years in the concept approved on Aug. 2.
“We didn’t think there should be a lease,” Pritchard said.
The hotel developers, Gray Angell and Dana Bryson, pushed for the five-year lease commitment in exchange for them taking on the bulk of financing the Spencer’s/Barter effort, including building the 500-seat theatre at an estimated $13.5 million cost.
Earlier proposals, disapproved by the state, called for Mount Airy doing that through a bond referendum or long-term loan.
Plan not endorsed
During the Aug. 2 meeting, two citizens who had roundly criticized Barter proposals up to that point, Paul Eich and Tom Koch, said they supported the one presented that evening. They are not members of Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy and indicated that during their remarks.
Yet the outcome of the meeting was framed by council and ad hoc team members as one in which everyone had finally come together on the Barter expansion after months of vigorous debate on the costs, which divided the community.
“It was presented that this was a united plan, and this was not correct,” Clark said. He pointed out that while Eich, Koch, Rees, the hotel developers and others spoke favorably about it on Aug. 2, no one from the citizens group was heard.
“For all the credit we got for bringing it to the table, we were not represented that night.”
Clark was not even at the meeting due to being out of the country, but Pritchard, who was there, saw no advantage in commenting on the situation during an open public forum held then.
“It seemed like it would have done more harm than good for me to say anything, in view of the fact we had been asked not to comment,” Pritchard said of a request by Angell.
“We thought it was going to fall on deaf ears that night,” Clark said of this reasoning, with the audience heavily populated by Barter supporters.
In illuminating the position of Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy, Pritchard said the group is not necessarily against the loose plan embraced by the city commissioners on Aug. 2. “We just haven’t endorsed it,” he said.
As the commissioners work toward a final agreement for the Spencer’s/Barter effort — which also includes plans for an upscale apartment complex, for a total capital investment put at $51 million — the citizens group hopes its recommendations will be reflected.
These include eliminating the expectation for a five-year lease by the city government of the theater after its completion at annual payments estimated at $540,000 to $580,000. The total could amount to nearly $3 million, with the hotel developers seeking that to help offset some of their up-front costs.
In addition, Mount Airy officials agreed to supply $2 million in operating support, or subsidies, for the theater during the five years.
The city would lease the facility from the hotel group, its owner, and sublease it to Barter Theatre, as the operator.
The citizens group advocates doing away with the lease as a funding method. Instead, it supports finding a way to rebate to the developers the property taxes to be generated by the project in the coming years, along with water-sewer charges and the additional Municipal Service District tax levied on downtown properties.
“What you earn is what you get back, for want of better words,” Clark said of a plan that would motivate the private sector to develop projects with solid long-term potential while further eliminating risk for the municipality.
“This plan gives them more,” Pritchard said of what the developers would stand to gain in tax rebates over time, while avoiding an open checkbook situation for the city government on top of infrastructure and other costs it already faces. “Nine million and counting,” he said.
The developers also would benefit from tax credits available for the rehabilitation of former textile mills.
Along with deleting the lease agreement and having the redevelopment fund itself through property taxes, Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy seeks the appointment of an oversight committee for the process.
“We’re talking about a group to review the agreement,” Clark explained, and to make sure Mount Airy officials stay on track. “And keep the community posted on what’s going on,” he said.
Clark believes the Spencer’s/Barter situation is symptomatic of a larger problem evident with city government in recent years with various projects that have greatly exceeded budget projections. He mentioned a facelift undertaken on Market Street, an effort to provide statues along a downtown wall and parking lot improvements.
The city government has demonstrated an inability to manage its own house, Clark believes.
“Now they want to add on to that,” with the Spencer’s and Barter projects.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.