Cary News

Fuquay-Varina art center plan moving forward

Discussions on a performing arts and conference center owned by Fuquay-Varina are moving toward a deal this spring, but not before more is heard about the proposed location.

A seven-member committee is proposing a minimum 600-seat theater and space for conference rooms. Other potential additions include an art gallery, rooms for music or dance teachers to rent and a second, smaller theater or rehearsal space.

Supporters of the arts center crowded into the board room Monday, pushing its capacity to the limit and cheering on speakers.

The Town Board of Commissioners heard brief speeches from local residents longing for more cultural offerings and Bob Barker, the founder of prison supply business, Bob Barker Co. Barker has offered to donate an old warehouse in the historic Fuquay district for the center, as well as a possible cash donation.

The space in Barker’s building is larger than the town anticipated when leaders tentatively approved $5 million to spend on the center.

Because of the larger size, the proposal could cost upwards of $12 million. But it would also have extra space to rent out for conferences, a way to make a quicker return on investment than theater shows alone.

Mayor John Byrne and other commissioners expressed eagerness to move ahead. They also warned that the project is expensive and would likely take private fundraising, as well as help from the state or county, to be feasible.

“That is the most important thing for all of us to think about at this point,” he said.

Barker’s offer is a metaphor for larger change, Barker said, noting that North Carolina is moving “away from manufacturing and toward knowledge-intensive activities.”

“It’s nothing really worthwhile that’s easy,” said Barker, a former mayor. “I realize there are a lot of hurdles here, but I think we can do this center. ... My primary purpose for doing this is doing something for the community we can all be proud of.”

The town has been considering an arts center since at least 2011, and the study committee met for seven months to put together its report.

“You can discuss stuff and discuss stuff,” Byrne said. “I think all of us sitting up here, this is something we want. You just got to figure out how to get from point A to point B.”

A key point along that path will be a Feb. 17 meeting for Barker to give an in-depth presentation to the board. After that, the commissioners will instruct Town Manager Adam Mitchell how to proceed with negotiations with Bob Barker Co. over the proposal.

On Monday, Mitchell also presented the commissioners with the report compiled by the study committee made up of local philanthropists, business leaders and town officials.

“I really feel like this is moving us forward,” said Jason Wunsch, one of the town commissioners on the committee along with chairman Blake Massengill.

Massengill said he hoped for a quick decision, and “not to just keep punting it down the road.”

An asset to the town

Brandon Conover, founder of the defense contracting business Practical Scientific Solutions, said the center would benefit the town. He drives his teenage children to other nearby cities for extracurricular activities.

And, he added, “I find that I’m often traveling 30 minutes or more to entertain potential clients just because there’s nothing in Fuquay-Varina,” he said.

Ann Marie Amico, a small business owner on the Fuquay-Varina Downtown Revitalization board of directors, said an arts center would attract new businesses as well as visitors who would keep downtown lively.

“For several years we’ve been looking for an anchor for the historic quarter,” Amico said. “An arts center would be a good anchor.”

She said the recovery from the recession hasn’t benefited towns like Fuquay-Varina as much as larger places, and that the impending completion of Judd Parkway will usher in more big-box stores, likely drawing customers away from downtown.

Keith McCombs, a retired state finance expert who served on the study committee, said he understands the town has other financial obligations and pet projects. But McCombs said he believes such hard decisions are the byproduct of a growing town – and that an arts center would be “what’s right to do” to encourage further growth.

“Better to have those challenges than to not be a growing community,” he said.

Commissioner William Harris voiced similar thoughts.

“I see the community at a tipping point,” Harris said. “We’re at a pivotal point in our growth, and I see enhancing our cultural opportunities as very, very important to our growth.”