Regions Southwest Virginia

N.C. expansion plan stirs worry in theater’s hometown

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Since 1946, the Barter Theatre in Abingdon has been Virginia’s State Theatre. So, naturally, talk of a Barter outpost in Mount Airy, N.C., caused consternation in the theater’s hometown.

“It is absolutely the main draw to this town,” says Mitzi Smith, owner of The Peppermill restaurant in Abingdon. At least 40 percent of her customers are Barter patrons, she says. Putting a Barter Theatre in Mount Airy would “take away a huge chunk of our business” at a time when business already is challenging, she says. “If you leave my restaurant and walk down to the Barter — and it’s two blocks — there are six empty storefronts.”

Richard Rose, the theater’s producing artistic director, thinks Abingdon business owners misunderstand the proposed expansion’s potential effect.

“Everybody thinks, ‘If [patrons] can go there, they’re not going to come here,’” he says. But the theater already does hundreds of shows away from Abingdon every year. Wherever the players go, Rose says, audiences follow them back to their home theater. “I think people underestimate the appeal of coming to Abingdon, and the appeal of coming to the Barter in Abingdon,” he says.

With the coalfields’ economy struggling and the region’s population shrinking, Rose argues, audience growth must come from outside the area.

Smith, unconvinced, calls the expansion, “a win-win for Mount Airy and a win-win for Barter and a lose-lose for Abingdon business owners.”

The Mount Airy plan called for spending at least $10 million to create a theater in a former textile mill. The money would come through a mixture of tax credits, capital campaigns and contributions from Mount Airy. The city also agreed to provide annual operating subsidies of up to $600,000 that gradually fall to $100,000 for years six through 15.

A North Carolina commission that oversees local government debt declared that plan too risky, but Mount Airy Mayor David Rowe says the deal isn’t dead yet. “It might be in the funeral parlor,” he says, “but we haven’t loaded it up into the hearse yet.”

The mayor thinks the deal can get state approval if the Barter Theatre takes on more of the costs.  “We’re still, I think, some half-heartedly committed to it and some whole-heartedly committed to it,” he says. “So, we’ll just see where it goes.” 

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