When Bob Barker moved to Fuquay-Varina in 1986, discussions about building a new auditorium in town were ramping up.
Barker watched the discussions progress from his seat as mayor in the late ’90s, and as the town’s most visible businessman.
After three decades, Barker said he has had enough talk.
On Tuesday, Feb. 17, Barker, who founded the Bob Barker prison supply company, will formally pitch his idea to the Town Board of Commissioners to donate a massive warehouse at the corner of East Jones Street and North Fuquay Avenue to create the Fuquay-Varina Arts and Conference Center.
Barker’s plan would cost nearly $13 million, with the businessman offering to contribute more than $1 million. Last week, he said, he knows commissioners have been apprehensive of the offer because of the price tag.
The town has budgeted $5 million for an arts center. Mayor John Byrne said that figure is unlikely to grow.
“We’re a small town,” Byrne said. “$5 million is a lot of money.”
Barker’s plan includes a 600-seat main theater, a 200-seat theater that also could host town meetings, a lobby that doubles as an art gallery, four conference rooms, two ballrooms, a professional kitchen, space for dance or music studios, and a large open space for anything that might draw vendors and booths.
“I envision this being a major place in Fuquay-Varina, with something for everyone,” Barker said.
The proposal has arts supporters and town leaders discussing whether it would be worth the cost.
Randy Bryant, president of the Fuquay-Varina Arts Council, said he would support “whatever will give our artists a space to display their work on a regular basis.”
But he’s worried Barker’s plan might be too ambitious for the town to get on board.
“I’d rather see a scaled-down version than no version,” Bryant said. “We can always build into it and add on later.”
Funding and control
No other building options have been seriously discussed. But Byrne said if the town isn’t willing to bet on this project, leaders still would be interested in something smaller – including buying a different building, or constructing something from the ground up.
And if the town pledges $5 million on top of the $1 million Barker has pledged, the proposal would be almost halfway funded and in need of substantial donations from local businesses and residents.
That means a public-private partnership, Byrne said, as opposed to a purely publicly funded facility. Barker has set up a non-profit, the Fuquay-Varina Arts Foundation, to help manage it and collect donations.
Barker and Byrne both said the plan also needs help from the Wake County Commissioners, who give hotel tax revenue to tourism-boosting projects.
Last year, the county gave Morrisville $3 million toward an athletic center, and Holly Springs recently received $1 million for a baseball stadium.
The process is highly competitive. Nevertheless, Barker’s plan already has been recommended to the town board by local residents on an arts center study committee.
One committee member was Nancy Johns, Barker’s daughter and a vice president with the family company. She said she thinks the arts center could adopt some outdoor festivals and shows, so weather would no longer be an issue in planning them.
Before planning specifics, the town must come to an agreement with Barker.
After Barker lays out his plan Tuesday at Town Hall, the commissioners are expected to authorize Town Manager Adam Mitchell to begin negotiations with Barker.
“The main thing is the money side of it,” Byrne said. “If we put $5 million into something, the public would like us to have some say in it.”
Avoiding theater deficits
Barker’s building is expansive, taking up half a block and 140,000 square feet. It has been mostly empty for years, however, as American manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to either robots or other countries.
The building’s size means it would take a lot of money to clear out and rebuild. But it also gives it more money-making potential than other local cultural centers.
Most government-run theaters and art centers operate at a deficit, Barker said, because they’re narrowly focused.
His plan would make money, he said, because of that classic financial strategy of diversification: Business meetings, banquets, trade shows, cooking classes and recitals would make up for money-losing productions.
In September, Barker commissioned an economic impact study on his proposal from UNC Greensboro economist Andrew Brod.
Brod estimated construction would generate $15 million locally, and that at full capacity, the arts center would bring more than $1.6 million in annual spending to Fuquay-Varina by its fifth year in operation.
Rick Mullen, owner of Ashley’s Art Gallery on Main Street, said bringing more people downtown would have a huge impact on his and numerous other businesses.
He said the center will be difficult to get started, but worth the cost and effort.
“It’s gonna be hard to promote,” Mullen said. “And it’s gonna take private funds. But there’s some out there. And we’ve got some really talented people in the area.”
Something entirely different
If it comes to fruition, the proposed Fuquay-Varina Arts and Conference Center, behind the corporate offices of the Bob Barker Company, would be substantially bigger than anything in the region.
In Apex, the Halle Cultural Arts Center houses a 150-seat theater, several art galleries, a kitchen and a classroom. The town spent $2.2 million to upgrade the century-old building in 2008.
The Holly Springs Cultural Center, built in 2011, cost the town $5 million and includes a 184-seat theater, library, conference center and outdoor stage.
Cindy Verian is director of Stars Theater, the only theater in Fuquay-Varina. She said she has mixed feelings about the proposal but generally supports it.
Stars Theater has 147 seats, so the larger theater in Barker’s plan wouldn’t compete with hers, she said. The smaller one would.
But she said she wouldn’t rule out selling Stars Theater someday and joining forces with the arts center.
“I’m not against that,” Verian said. “I’ll tell you what, it’s a lot of work to run a theater. People have no idea how much goes into it.”
Verian, however, said she wished the study committee and Barker had sought her input during their planning process.
“Not that I’m a super-expert or anything, but they never even visited Stars Theater or asked me,” Verian said.
Stars Theater, using some town subsidies, puts on smaller shows, including “Steel Magnolias” at the end of February. Barker said he wants to bring in bigger draws, like off-Broadway shows.
John McCorsley, a photographer with the downtown Artistic Expression co-op, said he supports Barker’s plan because it would bring artists, shows and other offerings that Fuquay-Varina previously has not been able to attract.
“I love the smallness of the community,” McCorsley said. “But I also love the idea of bringing in eclectic art. It challenges people and broadens horizons.”