The Town of Fuquay-Varina shut the door Monday night on a $13 million arts and conference center proposed by businessman Bob Barker.
Instead, town commissioners voted 3-2 vote to spend $575,000 to buy Stars Theater & Arts Center, a 147-seat venue on East Vance Street in downtown.
The majority of the board said they couldn’t commit to the costly plan that had been recommended by the town’s Cultural Arts Study Committee. The plan had called for a center with two theaters with hundreds of seats, classrooms for music and dance lessons, a ballroom and a large hall that could host job fairs, art shows and more.
Barker, a former mayor, offered a downtown warehouse and $1 million of his own money. He wanted the town to pitch in $5 million, with about $7 million to come from an undetemined revenue source. The town had envisioned spending $5 million on an arts and cultural center as part of its long-range plans.
“Ultimately, the business case just did not appear to be there,” Town Manager Adam Mitchell said.
Mitchell said it will cost $2 to $2.5 million to hire consultants and remodel the Stars Theater building, which opened in 2011, to increase its programming flexibility. An early draft of the town’s 2015-16 budget includes a new staff position for a full-time cultural arts director.
The town said completing a master plan for the venue will take six to nine months with construction anticipated to start by the spring or summer of 2016.
Mayor pro tem Charlie Adcock and commissioners Ed Ridpath and Jason Wunsch voted for the Stars Theater.
Blake Massengill, who was chairman of the town’s arts committee, and William Harris voted against it.
“I just think this opportunity may be passing us by, as far as time is concerned,” Harris said of the Barker plan.
Mayor John Byrne, who doesn’t have a vote, said he supports the board’s decision. Byrne said he likes Barker’s plan but was unable to get Wake County to contribute several million dollars in tourism funds that would have convinced him to support it.
“I feel like, in a lot of ways, I failed,” Byrne said. “It was a very tough conversation to have with Bob. I respect Bob probably as much as anyone in the community.”
The town’s plan for Stars Theater had never been discussed before in public, which raised objections from Barker and those who had served on the arts center study committee.
While commissioners were apologetic about the process, they defended their decision to go with a smaller venue. They said the town doesn’t have experience operating an arts center and is wise to start small.
“I’ve always been a fan of phased approaches,” Ridpath said. “I see this as phase one.”
Plans for the theater
The town will officially take over June 10, Mitchell said. Cindy Verian, the owner and founder of Stars Theater, said in an email that the theater’s programs will continue as planned through August. She declined to comment further.
Once the town takes ownership, Mitchell said, Verian will operate her programs as an independent contractor for the town. Other groups and independent contractors will also come in, he said, hopefully putting on events such as concerts, meetings and more.
“The board’s still got to get their mind wrapped around the vision,” Mitchell said in an interview after the meeting. “But the goal is we want something extremely nice, that the community can be proud of.”
Mitchell said he would like the venue to have a broad range of programming.
“Not just youth, or seniors, but the whole community,” he said.
David Morris, who helped start the Fuquay-Varina Arts Council, said at the meeting that the decision doesn’t mean the town’s focus on the arts should end.
“It’s like saying, ‘Oh, if we have a mini-mart here, we can never build a Super Walmart,” he told the council before the vote.
Concerns about process
Many at Monday’s meeting, including the town’s arts committee and other residents, objected to the decision. They criticized the board for rejecting the recommendation of its own study committee, and for not discussing the Stars Theater concept in public meetings.
The study committee recommended Barker’s proposal in January after seven months of work. Mitchell presented the recommendations to the town board in early February.
The Barker proposal had not been brought up since then in open session.
On Monday, Barker and members of the study committee blasted the board for its lack of transparency. Others criticized the decision to scale down instead of dreaming big.
Martha Moore, who graduated from the segregated Fuquay Consolidated School, said her classmates have held reunions in Durham for the last 27 years. She told the board she was “very disheartened” because Barker’s proposed center would have been the first space in Fuquay-Varina big enough for their reunion needs.
Barker’s proposal isn’t officially dead, but staff members and officials indicated it is low on a list of priorities.
Mitchell said the town has identified $65 million it could spend on roads and other infrastructure around town to help with growth. Fuquay-Varina’s entire budget last year was about $20 million.
“The town simply can’t afford to do everything we would like to do,” Mitchell said.
Barker said his proposal would have had the potential to turn a profit, unlike most town-owned theaters and arts centers, by hosting conventions.
Mitchell said the town had doubts that it could. Also of concern, he said, was the large hole in funding left when the town couldn’t secure a funding commitment from the county.
“Would it have stopped at $5 million?” Mitchell said in an interview. “Or would there have been additional investment needed? And then on top of that, how do you sustain a 144,000-square-foot facility that no community our size or twice our size has in the state of North Carolina?”
Stars Theater history
Stars Theater, a privately owned theater, has struggled. Last year, the town subsidized some shows to keep it afloat.
Adcock said his 12-year-daughter takes classes there, which led him to realize its value and the potential he thinks town ownership will bring by expanding its offerings.
“There is a piece of this community that needs and wants a Stars Theater,” Adcock said.
Mitchell said the value of Stars Theater isn’t just in its stage. The town will turn the theater’s lot into a public parking lot, which he said is a much-needed amenity downtown.
Mitchell also said he hopes the purchase will serve as a catalyst for growth. Local political and business leaders have been trying to court mixed-use developments to downtown.
“I think this sends a message to the investment community or the development community that the town’s willing to invest, and they ought to as well,” Mitchell said.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran
June 2014-January 2015: Cultural Arts Study Committee meets.
Jan. 21: Recommendation from the study committee to adopt Bob Barker’s plan.
Feb. 2: Bob Barker pitches his $13 million plan to the town board, asking for $5 million in taxpayer dollars.
May 4: Town votes to buy Stars Theater.