Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — A consultant’s prediction that a total of 250,000 spectators would attend shows the first year of operations at the Randy Parton Theatre in Roanoke Rapids was based on $2 million of publicly funded marketing support that never materialized.
The predicted marketing funds and attendance estimate were detailed in a 2005 feasibility study (see excerpt — 83kb PDF) prepared by Economic Research Associates, an international consulting firm.
Carolina Journal could find no one associated with the early stages of the theater’s development to explain how the consultant arrived at the $2 million total.
The General Assembly provided $500,000 in the 2005-06 budget for marketing. The money went to the Halifax County Tourism Authority. No other state funds have been designated for the project.
Roanoke Rapids borrowed $21.5 million to build the theater and turned over the building in March to Parton’s company, Moonlight Bandit Productions. Parton has almost total control of the facility. The first show with his band, the Moonlight Bandits, was on July 26. Parton normally performs about four two-hour shows per week. He has not scheduled any performers other than himself and his band for this year. Based on the theater’s current schedule of about 200 shows per year, an average of 1,250 attendees per show would be required to achieve a first-year attendance of 250,000.
According to the study, Roanoke Rapids city officials had claimed that Gov. Mike Easley would deliver $500,000 of the marketing funds. Carolina Journal furnished the relevant excerpt from the study to Easley’s office and asked for confirmation of the promise to deliver the funds. “No, Gov. Easley did not promise funds,” deputy press secretary Seth Effron said.
The study’s project manager, Bill Owens, has refused to discuss the document. Owens said city officials told him not to answer any questions about the study.
“The City of Roanoke Rapids reports that the theater is expected to enjoy especially strong level of pre- and post-opening marketing support including $500,000 in initial marketing and advertising, an appropriation of $800,000 from the North Carolina General Assembly, $200,000 from the state of North Carolina, and $500,000 from Governor Easley,” the study states on page 24.
The study used the expected marketing support to predict attendance. “Due to this especially strong level of initial marketing support, ERA assumes that occupancy will stabilize in Year 3 operations and that opening year attendance will be over 80 percent of stabilized attendance, or about 250,000,” it said.
Neither the city nor theater managers will release attendance figures, but media reports and accounts from local citizens have indicated nightly attendance at the 1,500-seat theater is significantly lower, sometimes fewer than 100 people.
The state-funded NC Rural Economic Development Center provided a $25,000 grant to the Northeast Partnership, a regional economic development organization, for the study that was dated April 15, 2005.
CJ furnished the relevant portion of the study to City Manager Phyllis Lee and former City Manager Rick Benton and asked each whether city officials told authors of the report about pledges of state funds. Benton is now the city economic development director.
“As I have told you in the past, I was not involved in the project during the period of time in which the Feasibility Study was prepared. Therefore, I do not know who, if anyone, from the City made the claim to ERA — what representative of Gov. Easley may or may not have promised $500,000 — and I have no documents or e-mails concerning any promise of State money,” Lee said.
“Efforts to secure state funding during this time frame were undertaken by representatives of the NE Partnership, not the City,” Benton said.
Lee also confirmed that she has received another quarterly financial report from the theater, but that the city still maintains the report is not a public document.
The Northeast Economic Development Commission was the parent organization of the Northeast Partnership. Commission CEO Vann Rogerson said he had no information on the marketing funds.
“To my knowledge, during this period of time, Rick Watson was personally handling the procurement of state funds for the entertainment project. I am not aware of any direct involvement of any of the Northeast Commission/Partnership Board members or other staff in the matter,” Rogerson said.
Former Northeast Partnership and Commission CEO Rick Watson recruited Randy Parton to Roanoke Rapids. The commission is a state-funded economic development agency that seeks to recruit businesses to a 16-county region that stretches from Halifax County to Dare County.
Watson and Parton formed Moonlight Bandit Productions LLC on Feb. 11, 2005. The commission and partnership boards of directors terminated Watson’s employment in the spring of 2006 after State Auditor Les Merritt issued a scathing report on the activities of the organization and Watson’s conflict-of interest. The partnership was terminated and all activities were transferred to the commission.
In February 2007, Parton filed amended documents with the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office that left him as the sole manager of Moonlight Bandit Productions. Public records do not say whether Watson still has any connection with Parton or the theater. Neither Watson nor Parton could be reached for comment.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.