Chamber leader weighs in on Spencer’s project

By Tom Joyce -
Collins -

Recent actions concerning the Spencer’s redevelopment project, including a Barter Theatre expansion, are supported by the head of the leading business organization locally, who is urging city officials to avoid further delays.

“At one point, frankly, I thought the project was doomed,” President and CEO Randy Collins, of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, said of the Barter expansion in particular. On March 22, analysts with the Local Government Commission, a state oversight agency, said city officials’ plans at that point for financing the 500-seat theater were too risky for the municipality.

Recent discussions led to a breakthrough in which the developers of a 90-room hotel also planned for the former Spencer’s industrial property — to provide lodging for theater patrons — agreed to take on the bulk of the costs for the overall project.

The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners subsequently voted 5-0 on Aug. 2 to move ahead with redevelopment plans including the Barter.

When speaking during a public forum at the latest city council meeting Thursday night, the chamber official was prompted to offer some thoughts regarding the recent developments on behalf of the organization. The chamber’s membership roll includes 576 local companies and small businesses.

Collins said thanks are due to the hotel developers, Gray Angell and Dana Bryson, for their patience.

He also mentioned the unprecedented economic-development impact of the Spencer’s project, which in addition to the theater and four-star hotel — along with a banquet center eyed to accommodate larger gatherings at that establishment — will include upscale apartments.

The total investment has been put at $45 million to $51 million, which the chamber official says is the largest ever locally based on his research.

Collins explained Friday that his remarks the evening before were aimed at highlighting the chamber’s belief that the redevelopment will benefit the majority of the community. “We take positions on public policy matters,” he said.

When speaking Thursday night, the chamber official said the project will boost an already vibrant tourism economy locally, with the Barter Theatre expected to bring thousands of extra visitors to town.

Collins also said the apartments, to total at least 65 units, will be a welcome addition. “We need the housing downtown.”

The chamber leader pointed out that the lodging component provided with the hotel will benefit tourists in general along with theater patrons.

Collins referred to the pitfall-laden process that has accompanied the Spencer’s development since the city government acquired the former apparel-manufacturing complex downtown in 2014. “It seems like a long time,” he added.

“I think we’re better prepared now than we were before,” the chamber official said of the recent funding breakthrough for which a final plan is yet to be devised and approved by city officials and others including the Local Government Commission.

Collins applauded the commissioners’ appointment Thursday night of a project planning coordinator and a project construction coordinator to help facilitate the redevelopment.

The chamber doesn’t want any more delays in the project, with Collins quoting late Washington Redskins Head Coach George Allen when Allen once articulated the need for his team filled with older players to win immediately rather than the future.

“For Mount Airy and the Spencer’s project, the future is now.”


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.