More info needed before Barter vote

After years of waiting, of studies and committee meetings and public discussions, Mount Airy commissioners are being asked to approve spending millions of taxpayer dollars on the proposed Spencer’s rehabilitation project, specifically for a joint partnership with the Barter Theatre of Abingdon, Virginia.

And they’re being asked to approve the spending now, immediately, before another week passes.

That is not sitting well with at least two of the commissioners — Jon Cawley and Jim Armbrister — and we share their reticence.

In short, the commissioners are being asked to approve city support for the proposed Barter Theatre construction project without fully knowing how much it will cost, without a plan to finance the project, without any sort of market study to determine if the project is even financially feasible.

A lot of figures are being thrown around — some seeming to change by the day. As of Thursday’s city commissioners meeting, when the subject dominated discussion, the construction of the 500-seat, $13.5 million project will cost the city about $3.6 million.

City officials say that could hike the city tax rate by nearly 20 percent, to 57 cents per $100 of assessed value on property. Additional costs for infrastructure upgrades and other associated expenditures could push that rate even higher, to 70 cents — a more than 45 percent increase to pay for the project.

Why the rush? To meet a June 30 start-of-construction deadline for the project to qualify for federal and state tax credits developers say are needed to make the project affordable (although it’s important to note, city officials and developers have known about this deadline for a long time — it’s not as if it were suddenly sprung on them this winter).

Not all gloom and doom

While both Armbrister and Cawley are right to question the expenditures and the rush to approve without the full picture, we do not for one minute believe tax rates would need to be hiked that much to pay for the project.

At the end of each fiscal year, Mount Airy finds itself sitting on a budget surplus large enough to nearly finance a full year of operations without a penny of new revenue coming in. City Manager Barbara Jones and her administration continually warns the commissioners our tax rate is too low, we’re going to eat away millions of those dollars in the next year for regular operating expenses, yet we end up with about the same surplus.

Maybe this would be the time to legitimately forecast using some of that money, rather than scaring city residents with big tax hike projections.

Yet, caution warranted

Still, we can’t help but find ourselves in the same corner with Cawley and Armbrister on this.

We have to be careful about our wording here, because every time a legitimate concern is raised about the Spencer’s project, a certain cadre of the downtown folks will scream those raising the issues are anti-development, anti-progress, anti-American, or anti-whatever they believe will evoke the most visceral reaction, rather than addressing the core issue of the concerns.

In this case, we stand with Cawley and Armbrister. Far more information is needed before the city commits millions of taxpayer dollars to a project that is still rather nebulous in its concept.

That shouldn’t be taken as being against the basic concept, and we suspect Cawley and Armbrister would say the same. The Barter Theatre has a well-deserved reputation as a pillar of the community in its hometown of Abingdon. While it’s had its share of financial difficulties, by all accounts those are behind them and the company — in existence since 1933 — is on solid financial footing now (though, it’s important to note that solid financial footing comes, at least in part, because of multi-million funding from the state of Virginia).

And the theater would make a solid addition to the city (though we do have to wonder if the city and local businesses were willing to pump these millions of dollars and this much effort and support into the homegrown Surry Arts Council, would the local return and job creation projections be even better?).

Ultimately, though, the most important question is will the city and its residents benefit from the proposed Barter Theatre proposal at least as much as its being asked to put in, and in a reasonable window of time?

If so, then supporting the project would seem to be a no-brainer. Problem is, no one can answer that question because far too much information is lacking.