In late December 2005, a lawyer representing the brother of superstar Dolly Parton pitched a deal to government leaders wanting to expand the local economy: build a 1,500-seat theater that would be the linchpin of an entertainment district that could produce thousands of jobs and expand the tax base. No, this wasn’t Roanoke Rapids. That city didn’t get the offer until Currituck County had turned it down.
Not that it proved to be much of a deal. Roanoke Rapids is saddled with repaying $21.5 million it borrowed to build The Randy Parton Theatre. It fired Parton as a performer in December and is trying to get out of paying him $1.25 million during the next five years. In its first four months, the theater averaged only 200 ticket sales per performance, far short of the 1,000 per show that had been promised. City officials hope the venue, renamed The Roanoke Rapids Theatre, will do better under new management, which took over in November.
Paul O’Neal, chairman of the Currituck commissioners in 2005, says it could have happened there. “Conceptually, we were behind the project 100% from the beginning.” Commissioners thought the county would benefit from side businesses and entertainers attracted to the theater district it would anchor near Moyock. County officials even talked to Chesapeake, Va., leaders about contributing to the project. The problem came, he says, when it discussed finances with Parton’s lawyer, Ernie Pearson of Cary. ”The letter he presented us with was all, ‘You’re going to do this, this and this.’ It was all what Currituck was going to do.”
When the commissioners balked, Pearson and other backers of the project lambasted them, O’Neal says. “They called a news conference and said we were hard to work with.” He believes that’s why he lost re-election — by 35 votes — the following year.
N.C. State University economist Michael Walden says it’s easy for local and even state leaders to be attracted to projects that promise lots of jobs over a short period. That’s particularly true in Eastern North Carolina, where the state is still waiting on repayment of $32 million in loans for the Global TransPark, an airport business park in Kinston that was supposed to generate thousands of jobs. “Think about it. You’ve got a geographical area that is being challenged economically. Elected leaders are asked to provide answers. People can grasp on this and see it, as opposed to saying, ‘We’re going to work on public schools and wait to reap the results.’ It pushes them toward the short-term approach.”