Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — State Senate leader Marc Basnight, House Speaker Jim Black, and DOT Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett helped state economic developer Rick Watson launch the Randy Parton Theatre in Roanoke Rapids, according to documents obtained by Carolina Journal.
Basnight and Black were instrumental in moving the project forward, while Gov. Mike Easley’s transportation secretary, Tippett, approved special funds for the project.
Watson was the president and CEO of the state-funded Northeast Commission, a regional economic development organization. Records show he began working on a theater concept as early as August 2004.
A Dec. 16, 2004 letter from commission attorney Ernest Pearson to Watson revealed the plan to secure support from key leaders. “Attached is a draft of a letter which can be used to evidence the commitment of senior legislative and executive branch officials to support the Parton entertainment project,” Pearson wrote.
Pearson had used this tactic before. “This is very similar to letters like I have used for previous projects that need some level of support to be shown as to a future legislative action,” he wrote. “I think it goes about as far as we can. They obviously cannot commit to what the 170 members of the legislature will do in the future. To imply otherwise, would likely not be credible to anyone and I do not think any legislative leader would sign it if we implied that they could control a future legislative action. On the other hand, everyone should know that if the officials who are indicated sign this letter, it would be highly likely that the requested assistance would be approved.”
The draft letter had signature lines for Easley, Basnight, Black and Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue. On Jan. 18, 2005, Black sent Parton a letter supporting the project. Black’s letter incorporated many of the phrases used in Pearson’s draft.
Black wrote, “I wanted to take the time to let you know that I was sincerely pleased to learn of your company’s interest in locating an entertainment facility in the Northeast region of the state. Please know that I am very supportive of this project, and I certainly will do what I can.”
“I would appreciate you sharing your business plan with members of the legislature in order to gather support for any needed legislation.” CJ did not find similar letters from Easley, Perdue, or Basnight in records obtained from the Northeast Commission.
Meetings with Parton
On Oct. 27, 2004 Watson met Parton and his wife Deb at the Raleigh-Durham Airport and escorted them to scheduled meetings with state officials. According to the itinerary, they met with Rolf Blizzard, chief of staff to Basnight. Then they met with Black’s staff members Meredith Norris, Rita Harris, and Patrick Clancy, while Black participated by phone. Finally, they met with Franklin Freeman, senior policy advisor to Easley.
On May 10, 2005, Watson met in Raleigh with former Gov. Jim Hunt to discuss the theater project. On Dec. 3, 2005, Watson’s travel records show he took the Partons to Manteo to meet with Basnight.
CJ could find no record of Watson and Parton meeting with Perdue in the early stages of the project, but one e-mail shows that Watson was planning to meet with Perdue in 2006.
“I think we need to talk with Allan Fluke. We are going next week with him to Lt. Governor Perdue and Golden Leaf for $10 million commitment for the Amusement Park,” stated a Sept. 1, 2006 e-mail from Watson to Dennis Nelson, a Nashville, Tenn. entertainment consultant.
Watson and others involved in the Parton Theatre said they also planned an amusement park and other attractions for the Carolina Crossroads entertainment district where the theater is situated.
Fluke, a Raleigh-based entertainment consultant, told CJ last week that he had met with Watson but that he never went with him or alone to meet Perdue on business related to the theater or other Carolina Crossroads projects. He said he had only a brief association with the project to explore the possibility of an amusement park.
Perdue’s spokesman, Tim Crowley, told CJ last week that she did not sign a letter in support of the project and that she never met with Watson about the project, but, “She thinks she bumped into Rick Watson at an event where he may have brought it up.”
Watson apparently tried to get the attention of state leaders in another way. Campaign finance records show that after he started the Parton project Watson gave $500 to Basnight on Sept. 11, 2004; $500 to Easley on Sept. 22, 2004; and $500 to Black on Oct. 28, 2004, and another $500 on Jan. 26, 2005. He gave $500 to Beverly Perdue on May 22, 2006. Since 1997 Watson has given a total of $6,250 to Basnight, $2,550 to Easley, $1,750 to Black, and $950 to Perdue.
In 2005 the General Assembly approved the legislation to create an entertainment district in Roanoke Rapids. That action was necessary before the Local Government Commission could consider allowing Roanoke Rapids to borrow $21.5 million to finance for the project.
In 2006 Basnight and Black each also designated $500,000 from Department of Transportation accounts that they controlled to rebuild state roads adjacent to the theater.
Also in 2006, Tippett approved an additional $2 million in economic development highway funds to rebuild roads at the theater.
A 2005 feasibility study stated that the theater was expected to receive 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 Assembly did approve $500,000 in 2005, but the rest of the money did not materialize. Easley’s office denied making any such promise.
A failed concept
The Parton Theatre is one of North Carolina’s most unusual economic development projects. Parton came to North Carolina without a viable company, without an established band, and apparently no money of his own to invest in the project.
Watson and Parton proposed building up to 20 such theaters in northeastern North Carolina and sought proposals from the 16 counties. The deadline for proposals was Dec. 3, 2004.
In June 2005 Parton signed a deal with city officials to build his first theater in Roanoke Rapids. Parton performed his first show July 26. He normally gave performances four days a week, but he did not schedule any other acts. City officials became concerned when they frequently saw fewer than 100 people per show in the 1,500-seat facility.
Parton could not produce the crowds and revenue necessary to pay off the money that Roanoke Rapids borrowed for the project, so the city cut his pay and hired a new management team. City officials refused to let him perform after they say he showed up intoxicated for a show Dec. 6. He was not allowed to perform again. On Jan. 8 the city council renamed the facility the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.