Roanoke Rapids OKs electronic gambling at landmark theater

Town hopes business stems cash drain from debt on failed venue

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comJuly 13, 2012 

  • Sweepstakes gambling in North Carolina The state General Assembly banned video poker in 2007, but a series of industry appeals, court decisions and legislative actions have resulted in the legalization of “Internet cafes” of the kind approved by Roanoke Rapids city leaders. The state Court of Appeals ruled in March that the existing law was too broad, a decision under state appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court.

City officials in Roanoke Rapids approved electronic gambling this week for the 5-year-old beleaguered entertainment facility formerly known as the Randy Parton Theatre – a move aimed at taking a chunk out of the $1.7 million annual bill for the once ballyhooed venue.

Homeowners in the northeastern North Carolina city, with an annual budget of about $14.5 million, see roughly one dollar in five of property taxes spent on debt service and upkeep for the landmark-gone-wrong. The town announced the $22-million theater in 2005 as a jobs-producing bonanza, opened it in July 2007 with Parton as headliner, and by January 2008 had fired Parton and renamed the place the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.

Parton had failed to draw expected crowds and was accused of showing up drunk for a performance, a charge he denied. The whole experience was a major disappointment for those who had envisioned a renaissance for the once-bustling town near the Virginia border. The town’s population of nearly 16,000 in 2010 was a 7 percent drop from 2000.

“We were a textile town, and we lost all those jobs,” Mayor Emery Doughtie said Friday from the office where he works as a financial counselor.

Doughtie wasn’t on the city council when members made the fateful decision to put Roanoke Rapids on the map by building the theater and paying Parton, brother of country entertainer Dolly Parton, a $1.5 million annual fee to headline and run the theater. The entire deal went sour, potential new buyers passed, and the town still owes $16 million to $17 million for the venture.

“I take the heat for it,” Doughtie said. “It’s been a real struggle for our community.”

In a Tuesday night meeting, city council members agreed to allow gaming if the machines took up no more than 10 percent of the space at the theater and didn’t become its major purpose. The returns won’t be huge – a maximum of $80,000 a year – but city leaders hope that the ability to offer electronic gambling will lure a buyer to take the theater off their hands, and the city’s books.

It’s clear that the theater has taken a toll that an infusion of cash could alleviate. During another recent council meeting, former City Manager Edward Wyatt, serving as interim manager, was quoted as saying the city’s infrastructure was deteriorating: “There are some things that we will have to deal with on a Band-Aid basis,” Wyatt said, according to minutes of the meeting.

Roanoke Rapids, the unwilling owner of a tourist-magnet-wannabe, has taken over management of the theater, renting it for concerts, weddings and other festivities and bringing in nearly enough cash to pay for upkeep. The city parks and recreation department is now largely responsible for the building that was to draw music-hungry, money-spending drivers from Interstate 95 to see big-name acts brought in by Randy Parton.

The Parton connection

The former bass player for sister Dolly left town in 2008, protesting that he had done his job, and that the city had let him down by not attracting hotels and other accompanying businesses that were promised to create a tourism nexus near the theater.

“The Parton name was used by the city,” Parton said in a statement after the deal came crashing down. “They came to me. I did not go looking for them.”

Whatever the circumstances of Parton’s departure, the theater he left behind remains controversial in the town. Doughtie said residents wish Roanoke Rapids could simply move beyond the project. But the theater can’t be wished away, nor time turned back. In a recent memo to the council, city staff said the building will incur greater operational costs in the years ahead.

On Monday, according to the memo, “model prisoners” entrusted with the task will carry out the weekly cleaning of the theater.

This week’s move to allay costs with electronic gambling brought opposition from some quarters. The town had previously voted down attempts to start an Internet cafe elsewhere in Roanoke Rapids.

“It reminds you of the classic Christmas movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ ” Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald publisher Titus Workman recently editorialized about the change. “Who can forget the differences between George Bailey’s friendly little hometown of Bedford Falls and the disreputable Pottersville he finds after he wishes he had never been born? Hopefully the city will drop the short-sighted political and economic reasons for Internet gambling, wake up to its harmful effects on people and the long-term damage to the city’s image.”

Doughtie is just focused on getting the theater off the city’s hands.

“We have some individuals that we are negotiating with right now,” he said. “I hope it has a very happy ending.”

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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