Carolina Journal News Reports
Top, Randy Parton, using his wife's reading glasses, reads from a statement during his Feb. 8 press conference. Bottom, Rick Watson answers a reporter's questions at the press conference.
RALEIGH — Randy Parton says that for three years he dedicated his life to making the Roanoke Rapids theater a success, but after he signed the deal with the city Parton also tried to launch a clothing line and build a similar theater in Missouri.
“For nearly three years Deb and I worked with the city to get the Parton Theatre up and running. We dedicated our lives to this project,” he told reporters at a press conference Feb. 8 in Cary.
But documents obtained by Carolina Journal show that Parton, his wife Deb, and his business partner Rick Watson pursued other business activities after the theater project was announced. In 2005 they met with Belk department store executives in Charlotte to discuss launching a Parton clothing collection. In 2006 they met with city officials in St. Joseph, Mo., to pursue the development of another new music theater. Neither project got off the ground.
After some prodding by a reporter at the news conference, Parton acknowledged that the theater concept was Watson’s idea. “Rick Watson saw this dream before anybody else,” he said. Watson was the president and CEO of the state-funded Northeast Commission, a regional economic development organization, whose headquarters are in Edenton. Records show Watson began working with Parton in August 2004 or before. In March 2006, Watson’s board of directors terminated him over conflict-of-interest issues that arose over his business relationship with Parton.
Parton clothing line
Efforts to launch the Parton clothing collection took place while Watson was still the head of the state-funded Northeast Commission.
On Sept. 7, 2005, Cathy Scott, a commission contract employee working directly for Watson, wrote House Speaker Jim Black aide Meredith Norris saying, “Rick and Randy/Deb would like to meet with a high-ranking official with Belk, preferably a corporate officer. We thought that Speaker Black might be able to help us arrange such a meeting. The purpose of the meeting would be discussions relating to Belks carrying the Parton family’s clothing line.”
On that same day, Watson directed Northeast Commission lawyer Ernest Pearson to trademark the following names: Randy Parton’s Carolina Crossroads, Carolina Crossroads, and Moonlight Bandit Productions.
On Oct. 4, 2005, Norris wrote Belk Senior Vice President Luther Moore seeking to set up a meeting for Watson:
As you might remember, in addition to my political work for the Speaker, I am a consultant to the regional economic development partnerships in North Carolina. Though I could go into more detail, the Northeast Partnership has recruited the Parton family to invest in an entertainment/theater district along I-95 here in North Carolina. … The main investor is Dolly Parton’s brother Randy and his wife Deb, along with other names in the country-music arena you would recognize.
One of their upcoming ventures is a clothing line and this is where I come in. If possible, Rick Watson would like to meet with you all in Charlotte with Mr. and Mrs. Parton to broach their idea of their clothing line to see if Belk or Cato would be interested, or if you all would have any professional advice/direction to give them on this subject.
I told Rick that the Speaker has a fundraiser in Charlotte on October 27 so I knew I would be there at that time and could come to the meeting with them.
On Oct. 7, Moore wrote Norris agreeing to a meeting with Watson.
According to expense and travel records obtained from the Northeast Commission, Watson and Parton traveled to Charlotte on Oct. 26 to meet with Belk executives about the clothing line. Watson charged mileage to the commission and was reimbursed. A Belk official confirmed last week that a meeting took place, but offered few details.
Black and Norris were at the center of recent state and federal investigations involving state government corruption. Black is serving a five-year term in federal prison. Norris was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of failing to register as a lobbyist for a lottery vendor, but she received no active prison time.
The Missouri activities took place after Watson had left his job with the Northeast Commission. But Parton’s pursuit of another theater indicates that he was not giving exclusive attention to making the Roanoke Rapids project a success.
St. Joseph Mayor Ken Shearin told Carolina Journal that he and other community leaders initiated contact with Parton in May 2006. The Parton team visited St. Joseph at least twice in the fall of 2006.
Parton, his wife, Watson, and Brenda Womble, a friend of Watson, traveled to St. Joseph in September 2006, according to officials there. At the time, Watson owned a 33 percent interest and Womble owned a 3 percent interest in Moonlight Bandit Productions, according to Moonlight Bandit’s documents.
Watson, Manteo developer Ray Hollowell, and four others traveled to St. Joseph in October 2006, officials in St. Joseph confirmed. Hollowell was a member of the Northeast Commission when he established a business relationship with Parton, but Hollowell declined to discuss any details.
“The deal [with us] went south when they wanted $500,000 up front,” Shearin told Carolina Journal. Shearin, who is originally from Rocky Mount, said he feels sorry for Roanoke Rapids Mayor Drewery Beale because of the way the project has turned out.
According to the St. Joseph News-Press, the local Chamber of Commerce paid to fly the groups to Missouri and various private companies and “even average residents paid to feed them.” One meal paid for by the city cost $257.31, including $49.50 for alcohol.
The paper reported that the deal “unraveled” when city officials “couldn’t get assurances about how its $500,000 in initial funds would be spent.”
Failed experiment draws investigations
The Parton Theatre was by all measures an unusual economic development project. Watson recruited Parton to North Carolina even though Parton had no viable company, no established band, and apparently no money of his own to invest in the project.
Watson and Parton proposed building up to 20 theaters in northeastern North Carolina and sought proposals from the 16 counties in the region. 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. The city borrowed $21.5 million and received an additional $6 million in state grants for the project. Parton performed his first show July 26, 2007. He normally gave performances four days a week, but he did not schedule any other acts. City officials became concerned when, on occasion, fewer than 100 people attended shows in the 1,500-seat facility.
Parton could not produce the crowds and revenue necessary to pay off the $21.5 million loan, 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 on Dec. 6. He was not allowed to perform again.
On Jan. 8 the city council renamed the facility the Roanoke Rapids Theatre. The city is negotiating with Parton over any further payments. Parton said he thinks he is still owed $1.25 million.
A spokesman for State Auditor Les Merritt has acknowledged that his office is reviewing the theater project.
After Parton’s recent press conference, federal agents in attendance delivered a subpoena to Parton requiring him to appear before a federal grand jury in March.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.