Announcements, disclosures, revelations or notifications have been lacking lately about the Spencer’s redevelopment project in Mount Airy, including a Barter Theatre expansion — and that’s bothering some citizens.
“Isn’t it about time citizens heard something?” city resident Paul Eich asked during a Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting last Thursday.
“I’m disappointed I’m hearing nothing — for months,” added Eich, who regularly monitors city government affairs.
Municipal officials have had few public discussions recently about the ongoing plans for the former Spencer’s textile complex downtown, where a hotel and apartment complex are envisioned along with the 500-seat theater.
Topics related to the Spencer’s/Barter projects have not appeared on the agenda for the city commissioners’ meetings in recent weeks.
One exception was a meeting on Aug. 16, when the board appointed Chip Pulliam as project planning coordinator for the effort and Charlie Vaughn as project construction coordinator, both on a volunteer basis.
Pulliam was tapped to fill a public information role. This was defined as launching a project-specific website on the Spencer’s redevelopment and releasing other information, along with making progress reports to the city board in open session at least once per month.
Eich said during last week’s meeting that this has not happened.
“So far, the count of the number of times he has provided that to you and us citizens is zero,” he said. After looking around the meeting room Thursday and seeing Pulliam was not present, Eich added that he assumes this pattern would continue.
The public forum speaker pointed out that discussions have occurred recently on the Barter project, including a Sept. 7 meeting in Abingdon, Virginia, between theater officials and a local negotiating team, Also, a session was held by the negotiating team in Mount Airy the day before to prepare for that.
A separate negotiating committee met on Sept. 13 in Dobson with Surry County officials, whose funding input is sought for the Barter component.
However, all those meetings were held behind closed doors and few details have leaked out from the sessions.
“I did not learn anything from that and nor did the rest of the citizens,” Eich said of the meetings for which the minutes were approved last Thursday. But all those minutes say is that the negotiators met in closed session and adjourned with no open discussion.
“This is getting ridiculous,” Eich said.
“So if you want to keep secret,” he commented while looking directly at city officials, then do so — “but many of us are getting annoyed.”
John Pritchard, another local citizen who has been monitoring the redevelopment closely, spoke after Eich during the forum and offered similar comments.
He focused on the recent negotiation meetings held in secret.
“I’d like to know what’s been negotiated,” said Pritchard, who is involved with the Committee for Transparency in Mount Airy which was formed earlier this year.
He added that based on what little information has emerged about the discussions with Barter officials, their position looks to be unchanged concerning the Barter’s financial input for the Mount Airy expansion. That was cited as a factor by state regulations when rejecting an initial plan by the city to develop the theater using long-term bond or loan funding.
“So what have the negotiations accomplished?” Pritchard said.
City officials did not immediately react to the issues raised by Eich and Pritchard, although Commissioner Jon Cawley did say later in the meeting that he agreed with them about the need to keep everyone informed. Cawley had sharply criticized secrecy surrounding the Barter project several months ago.
But Pulliam, the project planning coordinator, said Tuesday afternoon in response to Eich’s comments that there has been no conscious effort to avoid providing updates to citizens or the commissioners.
This is mainly because nothing has emerged about the Spencer’s/Barter plans “at this time that is pertinent to the issue,” Pulliam said. “There just hasn’t been any need for an update.”
Pulliam indicated that with nothing new to report publicly on the projects’ progress, it seems pointless to supply regular updates. “I just don’t think it’s subject to a play-by-play announcement.”
He last provided an update on Sept. 12, the first so far, when Pulliam reported on the meeting in Abingdon through a newsletter that was emailed. The update said Mayor David Rowe, a member of the negotiating committee, disclosed that numerous topics were discussed during that session.
Also, significant progress was made toward drafting a proposed operating agreement “that will be beneficial to both parties for many years to come,” the newsletter from Pulliam states.
He pledged Tuesday to provide more details as they become available, excluding closed-session information.
Pulliam said citizens also can keep track by monitoring the city of Mount Airy Facebook page and the city government website.
They can direct questions about the project to an email address at firstname.lastname@example.org and they will be answered in a timely fashion, he said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.