Future Barter votes must be 4-1

By Tom Joyce - tjoyce@mtairynews.com

Key decisions that are upcoming regarding plans to bring a Barter Theatre expansion to Mount Airy must be passed by a “super-majority” of the city commissioners in order to win approval.

This mandate, requiring at least a 4-1 vote, resulted during a recent Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting as part of continuing efforts to develop the 500-seat theater on former Spencer’s Inc. property owned by the city government downtown.

Funding aspects of the Barter endeavor have been controversial since plans unfolded for it during the winter, both among citizens and the city council. That was accompanied by a series of 3-2 votes favoring the expansion, including one on March 2 to approve an agreement for the Barter’s first-ever move outside its home base of Abingdon, Virginia.

Later that month, the state’s Local Government Commission rejected the agreement — calling for long-term bond or loan financing proposed by the city for the estimated $13.5 million facility — as too risky.

Local supporters worked afterward to devise a concept projecting less financial exposure for the municipality, culminating with representatives of a hotel also planned for the Spencer’s site agreeing to provide the bulk of funding for its redevelopment including the theater.

That plan was approved by the commissioners in a 5-0 vote on Aug. 2, with final details still to be set.

It was an unusual development, considering what had occurred up to that time with the board’s Jim Armbrister and Jon Cawley routinely opposing Barter-related actions regarding funding for financial adviser services, a property transfer and others.

Meanwhile, commissioners Shirley Brinkley, Dean Brown and Steve Yokeley formed a steadfast majority with those decisions which ensured Armbrister and Cawley would always be on the losing end.

Along with creating a divided council, the lack of unity reflected by those razor-thin margins influenced the rejection by analysts with the Local Government Commission, a state oversight agency that must sign off on major projects by localities.

But this no longer will be the case, due to Commissioner Armbrister making a motion during a recent meeting to require a vote of at least 4-1 for any decisions regarding the Spencer’s redevelopment project from that point forward.

Commissioner Cawley seconded the motion and it was approved unanimously.

The super-majority provision resulted from negotiations leading to the recent breakthrough involving the private sector agreeing to take the financing lead for total capital investment put at around $50 million.

It was lobbied for by the group Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy, which was formed in part in response to the Barter plans. That group lent its input on the heels of an ad hoc team molding the plan for the hotel developers to supply most of the upfront costs for the Spencer’s redevelopment/Barter expansion.

Gene Clark, an official of Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy, said after the super-majority requirement was approved that the group wanted to get Armbrister and Cawley “relevant in the discussion” again regarding the Barter.

The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners will meet this Thursday, but no major items concerning the theater are on the agenda.

A local delegation is scheduled to meet with Barter officials in Abingdon Friday morning to discuss the recent changes in lease and other provisions initially agreed to by Mount Airy during the winter. City leaders also have been trying to enlist the Surry County government’s participation in the project.

The latest agreement with the hotel developers calls for 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.

In addition, the city government would supply $2 million in operating support, or subsidies, for the theater during that period, according to the revamped funding arrangement.

By Tom Joyce

tjoyce@mtairynews.com

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.