Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — Former state-funded economic developer Rick Watson was the business manager for Randy Parton’s company at the same time he was recruiting Parton on behalf of North Carolina, according to documents obtained by Carolina Journal.
Watson was president and CEO of the state-funded Northeast Commission, a regional economic development organization that has its headquarters in Edenton, when the Parton Theatre project was proposed. Records show Watson began working with Parton in August 2004 or before, in his capacity as an economic developer. Watson has acknowledged that he was responsible for the theater concept and for recruiting Parton to participate.
Roanoke Rapids borrowed $21.5 million to build the Randy Parton Theatre and turned the theater over to Parton to operate. His show debuted in July, but attendance was low. Unhappy with Parton’s management, the city severed all ties with Parton earlier this year. Now, the city is struggling to find the right acts and management to make enough revenue to repay the debt on the 1,500-seat theater.
Parton’s company, Moonlight Bandit Productions, prepared a business plan (25.6MB PDF) for the theater. According to e-mail messages obtained from the Northeast Commission, the document was completed April 15, 2005. CJ was unable to determine what organizations or individuals received a copy of the document.
Under a section entitled “Experienced Management,” the document explained Watson’s role. “Rick Watson is a seasoned business owner and developer with extensive contacts across North Carolina and other states. Rick is Business Manager for Moonlight Bandit Productions overseeing all business activities for The Randy Parton Theater,” the document states.
The document did not address Watson’s other role as a state-funded economic developer.
The commission terminated Watson’s employment in 2006. Parton and Watson said they ended their business relationship in 2007.
Parton conducted a press conference Feb. 8 to explain his side of the theater’s failure. Watson was on stage with Parton and frequently took the podium to answer questions. During the press conference and in a subsequent interview with WRAL-TV, Watson denied that he used his public office for private gain.
Roanoke Rapids fired Parton in December after city officials said he showed up intoxicated at a performance. The city hired a new management company but terminated the contract after a few months. One city councilman has resigned over issues associated with the project.
N.C. Board of Transportation member Thomas Betts resigned after a news story indicated he used excessive pressure in seeking contributions from Parton and others for Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue’s campaign for governor, in exchange for road money he steered toward the project. Perdue has criticized State Treasurer Richard Moore, also a candidate for governor, for his role in approving financing for the project.
Last month the city agreed to pay Parton $750,000 to settle any claims he might have over his dismissal.
Commission asked for business plan
The $21.5 million financing plan required the approval of the Local Government Commission, chaired by Moore and staffed by employees from Moore’s office.
A letter dated April 22, 2005, from LGC Debt Management Director Tim Romocki to Roanoke Rapids City Manger Rick Benton made reference to the company’s business plan. “City and LGC need to receive copies which should include some historical numbers on current and past numbers of Mr. Parton’s Dollywood operations,” he wrote.
Moore’s spokeswoman, Sara Lang, told CJ last week that the LGC never received a copy of Parton’s business plan. Lang did not explain why the LGC approved the project without seeing the plan.
Commerce Department had business plan
A copy of the plan also accompanied a $1 million grant application submitted to the N.C. Department of Commerce. The grant was for water and sewer line improvements in and around the theater. Earlier this year Commerce Assistant Secretary Kathy Neal told CJ the document was a confidential “trade secret” that she could not release.
Department of Commerce Secretary Jim Fain was a board member of the Northeast Commission throughout the time that Watson was working on the Parton project. The governor, the speaker of the House, and the state Senate leadership appoint the other commission members.
Fain remains a member of the commission, but he told CJ that he does not attend the meetings and that he should not even be on that particular commission. The commission receives about $1.4 million in annual funding through the Commerce Department.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.