Cary News

Fuquay-Varina committee approves draft proposal for arts center

A proposed cultural arts center with a theater, art gallery and smaller performance spaces could cost $12 million, which is $7 million more than the town has budgeted for such a space.

On Wednesday, the Cultural Arts Center Study Committee, which has spent months looking at other arts centers and drawing up the proposal, approved a draft plan for a venue that would be known as the Arts and Conference Center.

The town’s Board of Commissioners approved a plan late last year that includes budgeting $5 million for a center.

“My opinion to this is I’m not 100 percent sold,” said Blake Massengill, a Fuquay-Varina town commissioner and non-voting chairman of the study committee. “I’m just being honest. But going through this, I have not made up my mind 100 percent for – or against – this.”

The most contentious aspect of the plan, which is contributing to the higher price tag, is an offer by Fuquay-Varina’s Bob Barker Company to donate an old warehouse in downtown for the center.

The building’s size would create a higher cost to improve the space. But it would also create more opportunities for generating revenue because of the larger capacity.

There would be opportunities for the town to make money by renting space, including rooms for conferences and music or dance classes, as well as putting in a 600-seat theater that would draw bigger acts.

“Less than 600 can’t get up to the level of shows we want,” committee member Betty Lyn Walters-Eller said. She rejected a suggestion to ask for 400 to 600 seats, preferring to ask for a minimum of 600 seats.

The committee visited a number of smaller towns around the Triangle to gauge the impact of similar centers on the local economy and was left optimistic that building one would also be good for Fuquay-Varina.

“The Clayton town manager stated the building of a cultural arts center was the single most important thing Clayton had done for economic development,” Walters-Eller said.

Keith McCombs, a retired finance expert for the N.C. Department of Revenue who sits on the committee, stressed the ability of the proposed space to host more than just plays and concerts.

He convinced the group to change the name to the Arts and Conference Center, stressing its dual nature. Conferences have more potential to turn a profit from the start, the group noted.

After making a few other cosmetic changes, the committee voted unanimously to approve the plan. Massengill said despite his reservations, he promised to seek a quick answer from the town commissioners about the “very good, detailed report.”

He said if the town approves the plan, it should do so as soon as possible. Any bond referendum requests have to be submitted by June, and the town’s budget must be finished by July.

“My goal is not to kick the can down the road, but for the board to come up with a clear answer,” Massengill said.

The long-discussed plan for an arts center in town will be on the agenda for the town board’s next meeting, on Feb. 2.

“Since this has been discussed for 18 years, it’s appropriate that Feb. 2 is also Groundhog Day,” Town Manager Adam Mitchell said, getting a laugh out of the committee and the dozen members in the audience.

The issue also could be discussed at the town board’s annual retreat, planned for Feb. 6-8 in Pinehurst. An agenda for the retreat, which is open to the public, hasn’t been released.

When it comes time to discuss Barker’s offer for the building, Walters-Eller said a committee member should sit in on the town’s discussion. Massengill said that might not be legal, since such talks about property are typically confidential.

“It reflects poorly on all of us if that is not discussed,” Walters-Eller said. “And if that is not an action the town takes, I think there are a number of citizens who would wonder why. Because it’s not often a citizen offers the town a gift.”

But Mollie Stephenson advised the committee members to wait to see what concessions the town or the Bob Barker Company might make before passing judgment.

“You’ve got to meet face-to-face to see who’s going to give or not give,” she said.

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