Southwest Wake News

Businessman Bob Barker pitches Fuquay-Varina arts plan

Bob Barker, center, pitches his vision for the Fuquay-Varina Arts and Conference Center to the town’s leaders at a meeting last week.
Bob Barker, center, pitches his vision for the Fuquay-Varina Arts and Conference Center to the town’s leaders at a meeting last week.

Supporters of a vision for a new arts center in Fuquay-Varina turned out in force last week at a town board meeting as local businessman Bob Barker pitched his plan for the center.

The town has been looking into a performing arts center since the 1980s, and the current board recently proposed spending $5 million to build one. Barker, however, proposed a plan that could ultimately cost three times the budgeted amount, but which he said also has the chance to turn a profit and be an anchor for the downtown district.

“When we support the arts, we not only enhance our own quality of life but contribute to Wake County’s economic development,” said Barker, who also is a former Fuquay-Varina mayor.

The commissioners didn’t make any commitments at the meeting. They said they might be ready to take action within a month or two.

Barker’s plan consists of transforming one of his company’s former warehouses into a massive space that could hold two theaters, ballrooms, classroom space, a catering-ready kitchen and space for trade shows with up to 200 exhibitors. The proposal would cost $12.8 million to build, Barker said, plus another several million for “soft costs,” such as paperwork and furnishings.

Fuquay-Varina’s leaders say they want an arts center, although they have been wary of committing to such an ambitious, and costly, vision.

Barker has asked the town to pitch in the $5 million they had budgeted for a smaller project. His company would donate $1 million, and the rest of the money would have to be raised from Wake County and private donations.

Town-owned theaters in nearby cities of similar sizes have typically cost about $2 to $5 million to build. But they also lose money each year.

Barker’s idea, on the other hand, is large and diverse enough to begin turning a profit for Fuquay-Varina after about six or seven years, according to a study the Bob Barker Company commissioned from a UNC-Greensboro economist.

“We feel like we have more than a lot of these other facilities to generate income,” Barker said.

Barker and an architect spent close to an hour last Monday detailing the plan to Fuquay-Varina’s elected leaders and answering questions.

Any deal would require further negotiations between the town and the Bob Barker Company.

Mayor John Byrne told Barker the town would respond to the offer within 30-60 days.

“We have obstacles to overcome ourselves, on a project like this,” Byrne said. “There are legal issues. There are a lot of different things.”

Fuquay-Varina Town Manager Adam Mitchell is expected to sit down with Barker and his company to work out a deal. Byrne said one sticking point could be who will have control over the building from the start.

Barker plans to eventually give the building to the town, although Byrne said the town might ask for it sooner. That could make it more palatable for the town to commit so much money, Byrne said.

But doing so would also take a property worth hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the town’s tax base.

Finding funds

Barker said whatever the town’s concerns might be, he’s willing to work out a deal to get things moving quickly.

A large part of his fundraising plan relies on getting money from Wake County, which doles out millions in hotel and restaurant tax revenues to local governments for tourism-boosting projects.

“It’s very hard to ask the county for money when the town is not committed yet,” he said.

He said he will ask for $5 million but realistically would expect about $3 million.

“Is that a figure that could likely be received?” Mayor Pro Tem Charlie Adcock asked Barker.

Barker said even if the county doesn’t give the project any money, he would still like to go ahead with a scaled-down version of his vision, funded by the town and private donations, and eventually finish the rest.

“I’m sure there’s several million dollars here in the audience tonight,” Barker said, turning away from the podium to look out over the crowd, who responded with laughter.

“I believe we can raise the 4 or 5 million extra (dollars) that we need,” he said.

Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran