Barter proposal simply bad business

To the Editor,

I write with respect to the proposed expenditure by the city of substantial taxpayer funds to subsidize the Barter Theatre project.

Over the years I have been involved with many significant capital projects where I served in a fiduciary capacity for investors, much as the commissioners’ job is to act in the best interests of city taxpayers. Never would I have considered committing investor funds to a project where costs and revenues were as speculative as appears to be the case with the Barter Theatre project.

And never would I have been motivated to rush a minimally researched project across the finish line because of an arbitrary deadline related to changes in tax laws. Notwithstanding the rush to commit, the city’s history with major projects would indicate that risks of substantial cost overruns and overly optimistic revenue projections are extraordinarily high, and a mistake would soak taxpayers for a generation or more.

Aside from the risks related to the compressed timeline and bare bones projections, I find it objectionable that the city would consider massive subsidies to new businesses that would inevitably compete for patron revenues and charitable contributions with established, and sometimes struggling, local enterprises.

If local enterprises fail because they are unable to generate requisite support from their patrons, so be it. Capitalism isn’t easy. If they fail, however, because new competition has been recruited by city government and subsided by city government with respect to both capital costs and operating costs, then capitalism has ceased to function and a small group of elected officials has engaged in picking winners and losers.

The proposed Barter Theatre project is an extraordinarily high risk endeavor that would have a substantial negative impact on existing community institutions and likely on every city taxpayer. If the project is viable, private sector investment will bring it to fruition. If it is highly speculative and unsuitable for private investors, why is it suitable for taxpayer funding? So the Spencer’s project appears successful?

At the community meeting held Thursday night Feb. 15, Steve Powell, Barter Theatre consultant, said he would “guarantee” that the proposed project would “benefit everyone.” That is what he should do: back up his claims with financial resources. He refers to Mount Airy as a “one horse” town. I would argue that being a one horse town is far superior to becoming a “one horse and one white elephant” town.

We could debate whether the Spencer’s project should have been undertaken by the city, but that is history. We should avoid at all costs making the situation worse by burdening taxpayers with a multi-million dollar white elephant.

H. O. Woltz III

Mount Airy