Latest Barter plan leaves more questions

It appears city officials — at least some of them — are now working on a plan which would see construction of the proposed Barter Theatre financed by private money, rather than city taxpayers.

That should be good news for the city, except nearly everything about the Spencer’s property has been cloaked in deception since the city first purchased the former textile mill with a proxy bidder, pretending to buy the land for himself while acting on the city’s behalf.

According to Mayor David Rowe, the latest discussions have included a proposal by Dana Bryson, owner of K2 Hotels and Services. Her firm has said it plans to build a 90-room, four-start hotel as part of the Spencer’s Redevelopment, but she’s made it clear if the city doesn’t build the Barter Theatre, she will rethink her participation in the project.

Now, according to Rowe, Bryson has offered the possibility of her firm building the theater project, then leasing the facility to the city.

We applaud Bryson for being willing to put her company’s money into what should be a privately built, owned, and managed facility.

However, we’re still bothered by the second part of that equation — the city leasing the facility. We’re leery about the city renting a facility for the sole purpose of another business, the Barter Theatre of Abingdon, Virginia, setting up shop and running there.

Why not have Bryson’s company simply lease to Barter? That way, two private businesses, new to Mount Airy, will be operating, hiring people, paying taxes, doing their part to make the city’s economy stronger. The city will still be on the hook for most of the infrastructure upgrades needed around the facility, but the actual operation of private businesses will be where they belong — in the hands of private business owners.

We suspect that extra step, the city leasing the facility, is somehow related to other parts of the original plan — the portion in which Mount Airy taxpayers were going to be required to subsidize the Barter Theatre’s annual budget, possibly to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

We also can’t get around the idea that this is some convoluted attempt at an end-run around the state’s Local Government Commission, with the city committed to eventually taking ownership of the theater. Again, at significant taxpayer expense..

The Local Government Commission has final authority over municipal governments’ borrowing plans. A subcommittee of the Commission flatly rejected Mount Airy’s original proposal — to finance the construction of the theater, along with paying the Barter’s operating expenses — as too risky and likely to place an undue burden on city taxpayers.

Mount Airy City Attorney Hugh Campbell says that’s not the case, that Mount Airy would never attempt an end-run around the Commission.

While we take Campbell at his word that he doesn’t view this as an attempted end-run, we can’t get around the idea that’s exactly what this might turn out to be.

The city council has a couple of members who are reluctant to gamble with taxpayer money, who demonstrate a desire to properly represent the citizens of the city.

But the local governing body, as a whole, seems intent upon hoisting this upon the city regardless of cost. In so doing, this entire project has seemed like one big end-run — around the media, around state law, around the Local Government Commission, and most of all, around the vast majority of the residents of this city.