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Barter Took Center Stage In 2018

The year 2018 long will be remembered as a time when Mount Airy staged dramatic and ambitious plans for a regional theater project, only to see the curtain close before its first act.

Discussions concerning a proposed expansion of the Barter Theatre based in Abingdon, Virginia, dominated the news locally for much of the year, as part of ongoing city government efforts to redevelop the former Spencer’s textile mill complex downtown.

“Of course, the Spencer’s/Barter deal has been overwhelming and sort of overshadowed everything,” Mayor David Rowe said Friday when discussing the events of 2018.

And while the proposed 500-seat Barter expansion was left waiting in the wings after being panned by city officials long before its premiere, along with a related hotel project, those setbacks shouldn’t obscure other positive developments, officials say.

“This has been a very fast and eventful year,” City Manager Barbara Jones summed-up in breaking down the highlights of 2018.

“There are so many things that did happen, it’s hard to list them in numerical order,” said the mayor.

Among these were other efforts involving the Spencer’s site, including the upcoming construction of a $7.8 million market-rate apartment complex on part of the property owned by the city government since 2014.

Also, plans for an events center seating 300 people to host meetings and other gatherings recently were announced for space there which is possessed by local businessman Gene Rees.

Meanwhile, the threatened closure of Mayberry Mall, during the 50th year of the shopping center’s operation, was diverted when a prospective new owner emerged.

Barter flirtation

The effort to produce the Barter’s first expansion outside Abingdon began in earnest early in 2018.

This included multiple public meetings in the Mount Airy High School auditorium during January and February, to accommodate legions of local residents both supporting and opposing the project. Citizens also jammed City Hall for sessions when the theater was discussed.

The debate culminated with a decision by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners on March 1 to proceed with the expansion as a standing-room-only crowd watched. Its 3-2 vote, however, reflected the division in the community over the project’s financial implications.

While many saw the Barter as a major boost for tourism and other growth locally, others feared that plans for long-term bond or loan financing to build the $13.5 million facility would pose an unfair burden for municipal taxpayers.

The project began unraveling on March 22 when it was rejected by analysts with the Local Government Commission, a state oversight agency. They deemed the plan presented as too risky.

This led city officials to pursue another avenue for funding the Barter effort, and an announcement in August that developers of a hotel also planned on the former Spencer’s property would bankroll its overall redevelopment including constructing the theater.

However, this still would have required funding input by the municipality, including paying theater lease costs averaging $560,000 per year over a five-year period and another $2 million in operating support, or subsidies.

A major roadblock emerged in October when a dispute surfaced between city and Barter officials over facility fees Mount Airy would be paid from ticket sales to help meet the lease obligations.

They were unable to agree on a percentage for sales proceeds at a level high enough for the municipality to avoid what City Attorney Hugh Campbell termed “an unsustainable funding deficit.”

The two sides ended talks for good and soon after the hotel developers abandoned their plans for a four-star lodging establishment because without the theater there would be no “demand driver” for its rooms.

This left the apartments as the lone remaining project for the city-owned Spencer’s property, in addition to the events center on the Rees portion, with work now under way for both.

Mount Airy officials also plan to consult with experts from a division of the University of North Carolina School of Government regarding further redevelopment steps.

Mayor Rowe said one aspect of the 2018 efforts regarding Barter/Spencer’s which he finds noteworthy is the different perspectives that greeted the process from citizens.

This resulted in “more public participation in our city government, which is a good thing,” he said.

Mall rescue

Structural deficiencies that posed a threat to public health at Mayberry, including a leaky roof that caused mold and environmental risks to occupants, had become a huge source of concern for city and county officials in 2017.

As 2018 approached with no repairs in sight from mall owner Mike Kohan of New York, the city government issued an order to close the shopping venue on Feb. 1.

In January, South Carolina developer T. Scott Smith attended a city council meeting to express interest in buying the mall, minus a separately owned Belk store and former Kmart space eyed by the Rural King retail chain.

However, the sale was delayed for reasons including a lawsuit filed by Rural King. It was claiming the right of first refusal to acquire the remaining portions of Mayberry Mall rather than Smith.

Rural King subsequently abandoned its expansion plans in Mount Airy altogether, clearing the way for the purchase of the entire mall, excluding Belk, by the South Carolina developer.

Local officials expect the sale to be completed in early January and mall repairs to begin soon after.

Business, other gains

Although Mount Airy had no major industrial expansions during 2018, the city did see solid growth, including $15.5 million in new non-residential and multi-family development, according to information from the city manager.

Jones mentioned that 46 new businesses opened during the year.

• One much-anticipated arrival on the local scene was a new Aldi supermarket on State Street, for which a grand opening was held on June 14 and drew hundreds of people to the former Derby/Gaunce’s Cafeteria parcel.

The German-based Aldi Inc. had broken ground in December 2017 for the 21,000-square-foot grocery store, as part of aggressive expansion effort by the discount chain.

• Other commercial highlights during the year included an Eagle Carports manufacturing facility at 280 Holly Springs Road, a $1.9 million project, and the $1 million Rivers Edge Express Car Wash at the corner of Worth Street and U.S. 52.

• A $1.1 million project also emerged for an exterior/interior upfitting of a Wake Forest Baptist Health facility at 450 Price St.

• In September, a memorandum of understanding was approved unanimously by the city board of commissioners for Mount Airy to begin selling surplus water to Pilot Mountain.

• Two city government projects also were completed this year.

One was an effort to rehabilitate and beautify Marker Street downtown, a growing tourism sector with craft-brewery and other operations where special events often are hosted.

The other was the Whittling Wall on the corner of North Main and West Oak streets, where brick sculptures of noted local musicians and others are located. The site is so named because of men gathering there years ago to whittle and chew tobacco.

 

Source : https://www.mtairynews.com