Citizens group official clarifies Barter comments

By Tom Joyce -

The treasurer of a citizens-advocacy group in Mount Airy has clarified comments made at a recent city council meeting regarding local businessmen’s alleged involvement in a planned Barter Theatre expansion here.

During that meeting on Sept. 20, Gene Clark of the Committee for Transparency in Mount Airy leveled criticism toward a proposal now under consideration for the theater to be part of the redevelopment at the former Spencer’s textile complex downtown.

He charged, during what was labeled an economic-development presentation, that out-of-town developers of a hotel there, along with the 500-seat theater, stand to profit greatly through tax credits for the project and funds from the city government.

Clark also stated, “The reality is that the currently proposed deal — which we learned recently was initiated by a handful of local businessmen — is not in the best financial interests of the city. It does, however, serve to enhance the financial interests of a few.”

The Committee for Transparency treasurer did not name the businessmen during his presentation, but, after a request by a reporter, sent an email identifying them as Gene Rees, Tom Webb and Chip Pulliam.

Clark said this had been told to him by Rick Rose, an official of the Barter Theatre based in Abingdon, Virginia, and he did not specify how the project might benefit them although Clark did cite benefits to the hotel group.

However, Clark subsequently clarified his statement, through a follow-up email, that Rees, Webb and Pulliam had not initiated the “currently proposed deal” backed by the out-of-town developers.

Instead, the citizens group official said he was referring to those individuals being “the original three that approached the Barter at the beginning” concerning its possible first-ever expansion, to Mount Airy.

“I see how it could be misconstrued and I wanted to clear that up,” Clark added in his clarification in reference to the timing of their involvement and the plan mentioned. “Sorry for any confusion.”

Rees, a longtime downtown businessman, played a key role in the city government’s purchase of the Spencer’s property at auction in 2014. He submitted the winning bid for the site, but it later was revealed that he did so secretly to obscure Mount Airy’s interest in the property.

Webb, also a longtime local businessman, was among developers exploring projects there, including plans for a performing arts facility. He withdrew from the project last October.

Both Webb and Pulliam also served on the Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission, which was appointed by city officials to spearhead the re-uses of the former industrial property. The city commissioners dissolved that group in January 2016 after its redevelopment plan also encompassed private businesses in the area, against their wishes that it be limited to public property.

Pulliam is presently involved with the Spencer’s redevelopment in a volunteer capacity, due to being appointed project planning coordinator by the commissioners in August. That role involves keeping the public informed about the redevelopment and making regular progress reports to municipal officials in open session.

The previous service by Pulliam with the redevelopment commission and his knowledge of the situation was considered a plus for his project planning coordinator function.

Pulliam responds

The initial comment by Clark about the three businessmen’s level of involvement produced a stern reaction from Pulliam.

In an email to The Mount Airy News on Friday, Pulliam objected to any inference in a recently published account of Clark’s presentation that he stands to profit from the Barter effort, along with Webb and Rees.

Although Clark, the citizens group spokesman, explicitly referred only to the potential benefits to the hotel group, Pulliam reacted by labeling as false any implication that the three businessmen “conspired to enhance our financial interests at the city’s expense.”

He also denied Clark’s earlier characterization of his involvement. “The implication is that I am one of the businessmen who started the project,” Pulliam wrote. “That is absolutely untrue.”

When contacted Monday for follow-up questions/comments, Pulliam cited comments made in the email and declined to elaborate further on his position.

“I think it’s pretty self-explanatory,” he said of that correspondence from Friday.

“I’m not sure now is the time to reply,” Pulliam added Monday. “I’m not trying to clarify anything other than to clear up the article.”

Rees also countered Clark’s portrayal of his Barter Theatre role.

“I have had no involvement with any recruitment of the Barter and the negotiations … and I know Chip was not involved with it,” he said Monday.

‘To this point I have had zero involvement with the Barter,” Rees added.

Webb could not be reached for comment.

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.