A local delegation will soon visit the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia — not to audition for plays, but negotiate with officials there in light of recent developments regarding its possible expansion in Mount Airy.
“I think we’re meeting with them on Sept. 7,” Mayor David Rowe said Thursday of a session he deems critical to bringing a 500-seat theater to town, because of numerous key issues needing to be addressed then.
The planned move to Mount Airy, which would be the Barter’s first expansion outside Abingdon in its 85-year history, has produced much drama concerning how to construct the theater at an estimated $13.5 million cost.
An initial agreement calling for the city government to shoulder that responsibility, along with other expenses, drew negative reviews from two council members, many community residents and the state’s Local Government Commission that must approve such deals.
It’s been upstaged by a recent proposal in which private interests seeking to build a hotel on the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown as part of an overall redevelopment project pledge to supply most of the redevelopment funding, including the theater. Upscale apartments also are planned at the site, where total capital investment by developers is projected at $45 million.
The local government would chip in another $6 million-plus, representing only about 12 percent of the overall investment. However, the new concept requires 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 the Barter Theatre, as the operator.
Rowe said Thursday that the recent developments are necessitating the upcoming meeting with Barter officials, along with other key sessions planned with Surry County leaders, who are also being asked to help fund the Spencer’s project, and the Local Government Commission.
In anticipation of those efforts, subcommittees were appointed by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners after discussions during a closed session at the board’s last meeting on Aug. 16.
Mayor Rowe, City Attorney Hugh Campbell and Commissioner Steve Yokeley were designated to negotiate with Barter officials along with Bryan Grote and Barry Schneider.
Grote and Schneider, local residents described as financial experts and “high-level negotiators,” are members of a three-man ad hoc team that spearheaded the most recent financing package ahead of a final agreement being approved by all parties involved.
City Manager Barbara Jones, Commissioner Joe Cawley and local businessman Gene Rees, the third member of the ad hoc team, were designated to meet with the county government concerning its possible participation in the Spencer’s redevelopment.
Earlier this year, after the Local Government Commission nixed the original plan, Rowe and Yokeley were selected by other city officials to prepare for a return visit to that agency to seek its approval of updated approaches.
Objectives with Barter
Mayor Rowe said Thursday that a long list of items will be on the table when the local delegation meets with Barter representatives in early September.
“It’s pretty extensive — some of it is just semantics and some of it is the real thing,” he said.
“Mostly it’s a rewording of the contract to reflect that the city’s not doing the theater construction,” Rowe said.
Another issue surrounds the need to alter the length of the original three-year deal for the theater to five years to fulfill the lease terms demanded by the private developers.
The mayor said when meeting with Barter officials the local delegation also will address “other places where we think we can change things to better the city’s position,” not only from the council’s standpoint but the Local Government Commission’s.
“It’s a long list of changes that have to be made.”
One problem that analysts with the state commission had with the initial expansion agreement was that the Barter Theatre, for its part, was not putting enough “skin in the game,” the mayor has said. Its financial investment was limited to launching a $2 million fundraising campaign to help offset theater expenses.
“The Barter is the Barter, and they’re not going to be giving up very much,” Rowe said Thursday. “But we’ll see what we can do.”
Rowe said the possibility of a conference call was discussed instead of traveling to Abingdon. “But that’s no way to do business,” the mayor said of a preference for a face-to-face meeting.
The fate of the Barter expansion will be at stake during the gathering in Abingdon, in addition to meetings with Surry County officials and the Local Government Commission — bad results from any of which could derail the project.
“We’ve got many places where it could be killed,” the mayor acknowledged.
“Things can’t be viewed as anything but tenuous.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.