There’s a cute story that the Barter Theater, up in Abingdon, Virginia, started up during the depths of the Great Depression by offering cash-strapped locals the option of paying for tickets with their garden produce, in lieu of cash.
“With vegetables you cannot sell, you can buy a good laugh,” was the ad pitch then. The first show in 1933 was billed as “ham for Hamlet.” Four of five theatergoers during the Depression paid with vegetables, dairy products and livestock, according to Barter’s web site. The theater ended its first year with $4.35 left over and two barrels of jelly.
My, how far they have come.
A Barter Theater troupe came here a few weeks ago to perform a play based on early 20th Century Jack London novels set in Alaska. No garden vegetables were to be seen.
The Elkin show was the first in these parts following Barter landing a sweetheart deal from the city of Mount Airy, which wants to build a second theater. Folks here got a sneak peak of what they want to do just a ways up the interstate.
Billed up in Abingdon as the state theater of Virginia, Barter would occupy a 500-seat theater by 2020 in the old abandoned mill in downtown Mount Airy.
It’s going to take more than jelly, country hams and chicken feed. The estimated price tag for the city to renovate and reopen the old Spencer’s mill is $13.5 million, with a $2 million share to come from a Barter fund-raising campaign.
Spending tax money on private businesses like Barter is controversial but continues to grow in popularity.
We usually hear about this kind of thing with sports venues. Government spends billions and tells taxpayers billions more will be generated through an economic multiplier effect from paying customers and new jobs.
Some economists call that bunk. For example, the famed Washington think tank Brookings Institution has led the way over the years with a number of studies that claimed that tax-subsidized sports facilities, like the Charlotte pro football stadium and pro basketball arena, have an extremely small, perhaps even a negative, effect on a local economy and do not earn a reasonable return on investment.
By contrast, Charlotte has other economists who say that the Queen City’s investment is a big hit. In 2011, for instance, they put the figure at $2.2 billion in revenue and 23,000 jobs.
Nobody can say for sure how well these things do.
I’d like to see an economic impact study on the reopening of the Reeves Theater here in the hometown in December. The Reeves, by the way, was privately rebuilt with no taxpayer funding (a state grant has not yet come in), and the Elkin theater cost a fraction of what Mount Airy wants to spend.
The last time I went down to the Reeves for a Friday-night show, I got the last parking space on Main Street. I hadn’t seen so many cars downtown at night since I was a kid.
So what will come following the Reeves reopening? Last month we got a new restaurant downtown, Luddie’s Kitchen (save me a table). The folks at Royall’s told me they’d look into staying open later on Reeves show nights. Let’s see what else happens.
In Mount Airy, you bet they had a nice little community conversation about Barter and money. Property- and sales-tax hikes for our neighbors to the north have been in turn predicted and denied. Surry County tax money also may get in the mix.
Another little complication is a feud between Barter and Surry Arts Council, the homegrown group that has run the fine Andy Griffith theater and museum complex in Mount Airy and other venues and events there for years.
The dispute stems from a canceled Barter show there one time and a refund never paid. When pressed during a City Council meeting, the Arts Council executive director rebuffed a request to again contact Barter and iron out the dispute.
The Arts Council also did not like the city promising Barter millions while giving it only $87,500 a year.
Meanwhile, Barter did not win points with some when its consultant bluntly said in a City Council meeting that Mount Airy can’t ride its Mayberry persona for tourists forever.
“You’re a one-horse town,” said consultant Steve Powell, as reported by the Mount Airy News newspaper.
She-zam, as Gomer might say.
Mount Airy has never tried anything like the Barter project before. Developers have promised a companion four-star hotel and banquet center as well as new downtown apartments.
The grand design is far from a certainty, especially after the state Local Government Commission balked at financing. The Mount Airy mayor told a Bristol, Va., newspaper last week that they’d press ahead.
Meanwhile, up in Abingdon the community is giving Barter grief over the prospect of taking some of its business to Granite City.
We await to see if Mount Airy takes off with this or if Sheriff Andy ends up stuck in the sidecar again.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.