Generally, we favor the idea that local government knows best, that those closer to a community are in the best position to know what the community truly needs.
Government officials at the federal level are often so far out of touch with their communities they really haven’t a clue what their constituents really want. Those at the state level are often caught up in serving their party chiefs and ensuring the advancement of their legislative careers.
Locally, government is truly of the people, by the people, and hopefully for the people. Commissioners may cast a vote on Thursday, then face their friends at a neighborhood cook-out on Saturday, or in church on Sunday, so they better be voting in the true best interests of those constituents.
Every once in a great while, the state folks get it right when local officials can’t see past emotions and what they want rather than what is right or realistic.
Such is the case with the recent unanimous vote by a Local Government Commission subcommittee to shut down the proposed Barter Theatre project at the former Spencer’s property in Mount Airy.
The commission must approve all borrowing and financing by local governments, and the subcommittee of that commission simply said the Barter Theatre project was too risky for Mount Airy.
Anyone who would look at the project from a purely financial and factual standpoint should come to the same conclusion.
The $13.5 million project was to be built largely on the backs of Mount Airy’s taxpayers, with at least $3.5 million of that $13.5 coming directly from the city coffers. Another $4.5 million was budgeted for necessary infrastructure improvements — at city expense — along with the city on the hook for up to $600,000 a year in operating cost for the establishment.
Given the city’s rather expansive history of inaccurate budgeting and project cost projections, it’s certainly fair to wonder if the final costs could have ended up 15 or 20 percent above those estimates (or more).
What may have been most galling for local residents who could see this as a never-ending drain on their tax money, was the fact that the Abingdon, Virginia-based Barter Theatre could close shop and walk away at any time, with virtually no penalty.
Although some folks in Abingdon were opposed to the idea of their beloved Barter Theatre opening a second-run satellite location, officials who ran the theater were almost giddy with the idea. And why not? It was an opportunity to make more money for their sometimes-struggling operation, at virtually no financial risk.
Why the project, in that form, spurred any support locally is still a mystery.
We know the commissioners are under pressure to do something — almost anything — with the Spencer’s property. The longer it sits, unused, the more their secret purchase of the property looks like the boondoggle so many feared when the city announced it had bought the place.
And we suspect those supporting the project were adapt at calling the commissioners, arguing their points as to why the Barter deal should be approved, playing on the board members’ fears of leaving an empty blue elephant as their governmental legacy.
So a slim majority of the board were swayed by those arguments, by emotions, by being caught up in the idea that something, anything, had to be better than an empty building sitting there.
Thankfully, the local government commission doesn’t get caught up in all of that. The state body simply looks at the facts: how much is being financed, is what is being financed worth the cost, what’s the likelihood of financial failure or success, and how much of a burden will the project place on local taxpayers.
Considering the project in those terms, it was an easy call for the commission members to reject the project.