It was the same production, with a new episode: Mount Airy officials debating the city government’s funding relationship with the Surry Arts Council amid its plans for a new multimillion-dollar facility.
The latest act of the ongoing drama was staged during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners Thursday night, when the discussion centered on a proposed ground-lease agreement with the arts organization for that project.
It involves a multi-purpose building envisioned for municipal property overlooking Blackmon Amphitheatre, situated between the Mount Airy Public Library parking lot and Hutchens Cleaners and Laundry.
Plans call for the new center to include a museum dedicated to Siamese twins Eng and Chang Bunker, who lived near Mount Airy in the 1800s, and a statue of the legendary pair. More classroom and other space for the Surry Arts Council also is eyed.
Commissioners who were serving in January 2019 voted then to allow the council to proceed with design plans and fundraising for the new structure, which will be owned/maintained by the city government once finished and operated by the arts organization.
Approval of the ground-lease, or lease-back, agreement spelling out the terms of that use has loomed over the plans recently and drawn the scrutiny of new commissioners sworn in last December. This has served to delay that step deemed as important in allowing the project to move forward.
The agreement was scheduled to be voted on during an Aug. 20 city council meeting, but tabled until Thursday night, when the matter again was delayed to its next session on Oct. 1 in a 3-2 vote.
While the ground-lease agreement yet awaits a final act, plenty of discussion surrounded it despite no vote occurring.
The two dissenting commissioners, Jon Cawley and Tom Koch, favored approving the document Thursday night, rather than another postponement, so the Surry Arts Council can forge ahead.
“This has been discussed and discussed at multiple meetings,” SAC Executive Director Tanya Jones said in comments to the city board regarding the need for a decision. “This has been going on a long time.”
Jones echoed statements earlier voiced by City Attorney Hugh Campbell, that there is nothing particularly controversial or contentious in the pact.
“It’s a simple land-lease agreement allowing us to get on with it,” she said of the new building to be predominantly funded by donations and other revenues raised by her organization.
Yet the three board members who voted for the delay on a motion by Commissioner Steve Yokeley, also including Ron Niland and Marie Wood, cited lingering questions they want answered before Oct. 1. These include concerns not only about the lease, but the municipality’s funding relationship with the Surry Arts Council overall.
“I’m very much in favor of them continuing with the project, but I’ve heard the concerns of the (new) commissioners,” Yokeley said.
Wood, a retired certified public accountant, focused on the finances surrounding the arrangement, especially maintenance costs the municipality will incur for the new building along with those already accompanying existing Surry Arts Council facilities.
In the past, this has included HVAC and roof replacements and new seating in the city-owned Andy Griffith Playhouse run by Jones and her staff.
“That’s where I have a problem,” said Wood, who pointed out that the city government has allocated more than $1 million for the Surry Arts Council in the past five years for building-related expenses and special appropriations.
“Coming from my background, I’m just looking at dollars and cents,” Wood explained, saying that what has occurred in the past between the city and arts group might not be best for the future.
Officials of the Surry Arts Council including Brian Royster, president of its governing board; Treasurer Tommy Hill; and Lenise Lynch, a board member who is general manager of Hampton Inn, commented during a public forum about the benefits of council events.
This includes generating tourism traffic for hotels and sales tax benefits, which stand to increase with the new facility drawing an untapped group of international travelers interested in the Eng and Chang story.
Wood questioned how revenue benefits can be quantified to establish what the arts group brings in alone, aside from other attractions locally, and said the city receives a relatively small share of sales taxes filtered through the state and county.
“We know what goes out (the $1 million-plus over five years) — we do not know how much has come in,” she observed.
Niland, Cawley exchange
Commissioner Niland, who along with Wood is a recent addition to the city board, said Thursday night that he also has questions about the ground-lease arrangement. He criticized the previous board for not being thorough enough when green-lighting the Surry Arts Council’s plans in January 2019.
This line of discussion triggered a spirited exchange between Niland and Cawley, which led to Mayor David Rowe telling them to calm down at one point.
Cawley’s position was that the board had agreed in January 2019 to continue the same partnership for maintenance as with other arts group facilities, although discussion indicated this was not explicit.
“The devil is in the details,” Niland responded, expressing his belief that the lack of such specificity was a problem with the previous board in voting on certain issues, which sometimes caused difficulties later. “I don’t think there was ever a vote to give them a ground lease.”
Cawley said if such action had occurred, it could be undone by the “new” board, such as a decision earlier this year to cut $800,000 in long-range assistance to the arts organization, although $200,000 for the 2019-20 fiscal year was left intact.
The prevailing sentiment was that 2019-20 was under the “old” board’s control, with the fate of the $800,000 additionally earmarked by it left to the discretion of the new one.
Mayor Rowe said that despite the lack of a lease vote, the intent in 2019 was clear: “In my mind we were allowing them to build on that piece of property.”
The commissioners ultimately decided 3-2 Thursday night to delay action on the lease to their Oct. 1 meeting. This will allow time for a committee composed of two newer commissioners (Niland and Wood) to meet publicly with Surry Arts Council representatives, along with the city manager and attorney, to iron out lingering concerns.
That elicited confusion on the part of the Surry Arts Council executive director.
“I don’t know what other information we can provide,” Jones said.
“We have literally done everything we’ve been asked to do,” she further remarked. “I sincerely ask, please take some sort of action so we can move forward.” Jones pointed out that maintenance expenses for the upcoming project should be “very, very low” with a new building involved.
“I think I can feel Tanya’s frustration,” said Commissioner Koch, who as a newer board member believes it should honor the commitment made in 2019 allowing the new facility.
“I’d be willing to vote yes tonight, with a caution,” Koch added. He suggested that if maintenance does become a problem, the commissioners might need to revise a yearly city allocation to the Surry Arts Council, presently $87,500.
Wood said a surtax also could be placed on ticket sales for council events to provide maintenance funds.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.