Carolina Journal News Reports
ROANOKE RAPIDS — The city scrapped the original plan for the Randy Parton Theatre on Nov. 20 and removed Parton and his company as its managers. Meanwhile, the city signed a contract with Massachusetts-based UNICCO to operate the theater and to book other acts.
Parton will perform through the end of the year, but his role after that is uncertain. The city will continue to pay him.
Mayor Drewery Beale and Parton say they are optimistic about the new arrangement. “It’s not a hostile takeover. It’s mutual, everybody got together and came up with something that works,” Parton told the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald.
“It’s not a hostile situation whatsoever, but we’ve got a prime location out there. We’ve got a plan in place, a good plan in place that’s going to make this thing work and it was working before,” the newspaper quoted Beale as saying.
Former Northeast Partnership CEO Rick Watson developed the concept for the theater and recruited Randy Parton to participate. The partnership 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’s board of directors terminated him last year for working for Parton and Parton’s company, Moonlight Bandit Productions, while Watson performed his state-funded economic development job. Watson terminated all ties with Parton’s company earlier this year, Beale said.
The project, one of North Carolina’s most unusual economic development experiments, appears to be in financial trouble after being open only four months. City officials had bet on Parton’s ability to competently manage the theater and to attract enough customers to pay expenses.
Parton is the brother of Dolly Parton and before coming to Roanoke Rapids in 2005 he played at the Dollywood Amusement Park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. Randy Parton, however, appears to have no experience managing a theater. It also appears that he never invested any of his own money in the project.
Parton and his band played their first two-hour show July 26, but he has failed to schedule any other acts. Contracts with his band members show that Parton was expecting them to perform 250 shows per year. Attendance has only been a fraction of the 1,200 attendees per show predicted in a feasibility study. On several nights fewer than a 100 people attended a show.
The city borrowed $21.5 million to build the 35,000-square-foot, 1,500-seat theater along Interstate 95, to pay for some related infrastructure, and to set aside $3 million in start-up money. The state also invested about $6 million in the theater. City officials have touted the theater as the cornerstone of a much larger entertainment and retail project called Carolina Crossroads.
The city turned the completed building over to Parton in March to manage. The arrangement called for him to pay all expenses, including debt service on the $21.5 million. When that was paid off he was to be given ownership of the building.
Parton’s previous contract allowed him to collect up to $1.5 million per year as an “artist fee.” But because he was supposed to pay all theater expenses, the public didn’t know how much additional money he or his family members received from theater revenues or from the $2.5 million and other funds advanced to him by the city.
Parton’s new contract calls for him to receive $250,000 per year for five years. It also limits him to 36 shows per year. If the city doesn’t ask him to perform, and he doesn’t ask the city to perform, he might not perform at all. However, he is still to be paid the fee.
The city relieved him of all financial responsibility and forgave a $475,000 advance that he owed the city.
The online forums of The Daily Herald, once a strong supporter of the project, have generated much negative comments about Parton and city officials. Here’s a sample:
"Beale and his elbow rubbing buddies should be removed from their positions … this whole deal stinks.”
“If tax dollars are being used then the issues must be open for the public to see how the funds are being spent.”
“Follow the money. This fiasco wasn’t Randy Parton’s idea. A couple scammers used him as a front for their scam.”
“I remember back in ‘85 or ‘86 RR High School did the musical “The Music Man.” I wish the current city council had been at that production.”
Local businessman Jim Garrett also administers an online forum that has generated negative comments about the project. Among his recent comments:
“Not one person in Roanoke Rapids has stepped forward and accepted any blame. No one person did anything wrong or made mistakes but we are on the brink of financial disaster. As a city and borrower with credit rating we now owe an additional $21 million and still no clear path for repayment. Why is that?”
A brief history of the Parton Theatre project
• State-funded regional economic developer Rick Watson recruits Randy Parton for a theater project in northeastern North Carolina.
• February — Parton, Watson, and others form Moonlight Bandit Productions.
•June — City signs a contract with Parton and private developers to build the theater
•November — Roanoke Rapids sponsors a groundbreaking for the Randy Parton Theatre. Watson says he will continue as economic developer and also work with Parton.
• March — Watson is terminated from his economic developer position after his board learned that the state auditor will release critical report.
• March — State Treasurer Richard Moore’s office gives initial approval for the city to borrow $21 million.
• April — The state auditor’s report documented numerous problems with Watson’s organization.
• March — The completed theater is turned over to Parton. Parton files documents indicating he is the sole manager of Moonlight Bandit Productions and Watson is not involved.
• July — Parton’s band plays the first show, but no other acts are scheduled.
• August to November — Parton performs about four times a week, but attendance is poor.
• November — City Council approves new contract removing Parton as manager and hires Massachusetts-based UNICCO to operate the theater.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.