To the Editor,
Redeveloping the Spencer property with a hotel and theater may be the greatest opportunity for economic growth and investment in Mount Airy’s history. There are questions and uncertainty but this is true of any investment. I have dabbled in equities for more th an 30 years. There is never certainty. I spent my career in educational theater but this project is not about theater. It is about tourism that involves a theater.
We need to focus on the privately financed, $15 million hotel. It will be a destination hotel and unlike anything in Mount Airy. It is not designed for people who just want to spend the night but for people to have an experience. It will pose little competition to existing motels. We have no hotel/motel that has its own restaurant or a sizable meeting space. If anyone wants to meet with more than 30 people, finding a place is a challenge. Other than a few local businesses, churches, and civic groups, meetings do not happen in Mount Airy. This hotel changes that. Having a facility that supplies rooms, food, and meeting spaces would be a huge asset to all of us. Great things happen in communities able to host meetings, presentations, display shows, craft fairs, indoor auto shows, etc. But a destination hotel needs a main attraction—thus the theater.
A hotel and a theater work well together. To have dinner, see a show, have a drink afterwards, and call it a night all without having to get into your car is an attractive evening. Hotel guests would also be able to walk to the Andy Griffith Playhouse, Blackmon Amphitheater, our museums and downtown businesses. Many good things happen when pedestrian traffic increases in downtown areas. More business – more jobs.
The Barter Theater of Abingdon, Virginia would operate our theater in with a minimum of 250 performances each year. After 85 years in Abingdon, the Barter needs to reach a new audience. They will continue in Abingdon but Mount Airy offers a chance to develop that new audience. Except for the theater, we have what they are looking for. We are close enough to Abingdon that moving scenery and personnel is practical, we have an existing tourism business for them to help grow, we have 6 million people within 100 miles, we are easy to reach with I-77 and I-74/US 52, and we have existing motel space for those choosing not to stay at the destination hotel. It’s a great fit: The Barter needs our location and we need their tourist appeal.
Questions raised about the Barter’s financial standing at public meetings have for the most part been answered. Although a nonprofit, the Barter showed losses during the past few years but we now know those to be attributed to facilities expansion in Abingdon and not to mismanagement or malfeasance on their part. They appear to be on solid financial ground. All of this is good news.
At the Feb. 15 meeting, Tanya Jones of the Surry Arts Council raised two major concerns that went unanswered. The first questioned how the Barter would impact the Arts Council’s operations, the second was about the city’s willingness to support and maintain a new facility while neglecting the maintenance of current facilities. Good questions, but I fail to see how a downtown hotel and theater complex can do nothing but enhance Arts Council functions. Neither the Barter nor the hotel is relying on the population of Mount Airy or Surry County for their clientele. The Barter and the hotel will both spend substantial money publicizing their offerings outside this immediate area. They are not relying on the same audience as the Arts Council. That is great for all us. The Barter and the hotel will promote Mount Airy and we all benefit.
On the second issue, if there is disagreement regarding financial support for the Arts Council, both parties need to work toward a solution. But that issue is separate from developing the Spencer property. The Arts Council is crucial to the quality of life in Mount Airy. From banjo lessons to promoting “Mayberry,” the council has played and will continue to play a vital role, but The Barter is really not about the arts; it is about significantly increasing tourism.
The city is in position to receive some $10 million in tax credits for this project. There will however be about $3.5 million needed for investment and how that will affect tax rates is emotionally charged and difficult to conclusively answer. Projections by the city show a property valued at $100,000 will increase an average of $47.50 per year for the first 10 years and less for the next ten. That is an investment of 91 cents per week. Surrey Bank made an analysis of this project’s financing and recommends ways to reduce the construction financing, reduce any tax burden and for the Barter to put some money into this project. Simply put, the financing for this project is complex and to my knowledge, there is still some uncertainty. But we are dealing with a project involving local, state, federal, private, and non-profit entities.
Absolute certainty cannot be assured and never is when dealing with future projections of construction costs, ticket sales, or occupancy rates. This project is not an uncertain business deal but a long term investment. If in ten years this project has increased everyone’s property values by only 2 percent, then the return on the $475 of additional taxes paid per $100,000 would result in an increased value of $2,000. That quadruples our investment – that is a great deal. If a hotel developer believes this project to be worth an investment of $15 million+ why can’t we believe it to be worth a dollar or two per week?
North Carolina is dotted with communities that did not take progressive action to repurpose manufacturing facilities, and now those communities have lost their economic footing. Many of these towns will not recover. In Mount Airy we are holding on. We have discovered wine and tourism to be our new industries. Our “Mayberry” heritage will play a role in future tourism, but it lacks a needed growth element. If we invest in and repurpose the Spencer property with a hotel and theater, I am very optimistic that our investment will pay off.
Gary M. Pruett