News: CJ Exclusives

Roanoke Rapids finally unloads former Randy Parton Theatre

City lost millions on failed entertainment facility

Evon McLean, center, holds the keys to the Roanoke Rapids Theatre. She and her husband Tom, left, purchased the facility July 23. Her son Beau Petty, right, will play a key role in managing the facility. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)
Evon McLean, center, holds the keys to the Roanoke Rapids Theatre. She and her husband Tom, left, purchased the facility July 23. Her son Beau Petty, right, will play a key role in managing the facility. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

The shows at the old Randy Parton Theatre will go on, in some form or another.

The city of Roanoke Rapids on Monday, July 23, officially transferred the Roanoke Rapids Theatre to new owners Thomas McLean and his wife Evon of Chocowinity. The McLeans are buying the 35,000-square foot, 1,500-seat facility for $3 million.

City Manager Joseph Scherer told Carolina Journal the city owed about $15 million on the project before the McLean payment. Several previous attempts to sell the theater have fallen through.

The re-opened facility will be a “multi-purpose dining, entertainment, and performance venue [that] transforms into a premier travel destination anchoring the I-95 corridor in Halifax County,” a news releases says.

The new owners plan to hire 25 full-time and 25 part-time employees. The first show is set for late September, though details weren’t immediately available. Acts will range from music to movies to car shows, the promoters say.

The transfer took place as part of an informal ceremony in the theater lobby. City officials and several interested residents attended.

From left, Roanoke Rapids City attorney Gilbert Chichester, Mayor Emery Doughtie holding a payment check from the McLean’s, new theatre owners Evon McLean and Tom McLean, and City Manager Joseph Scherer participate in the transfer ceremony at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre. (CJ photo by Don Carrington)

“In the nine years I have been mayor I have not had a more positive outlook [for this theater]. The McLeans have been good to deal with,” Mayor Emery Doughtie said.

In November, the McLeans started negotiating the purchase with the city. Evon McLean’s son Beau Petty, also of Chocowinity, will play a key role in managing the theater.

“We need to get maximum use out of this facility,” he told CJ.

Halifax County tax records value the 8.8-acre site at $1,185,400 and the building at $7,753,700, for a total value of $8,939,100. Petty said he was discussing a revised assessment with the county.

The Raleigh-based public relations firm French West Vaughn is handling public relations and promotion for the new owners.

“The theater is like a 10-year-old car that has been garaged. We are going to drive it right down the interstate,” French West Sports & Entertainment Practice President Jack Glasure told the crowd.

He said they an event calendar, soon to be released, will cover a two-year period.

The Raleigh-based office of East Coast Entertainment, which says it’s “the largest, full-service entertainment agency in the country,” will book acts for the facility. ECE agent Andrew Walsh attended the ceremony.

Troubled beginning

The project became public in July 2005, when the N.C. Northeast Partnership, a 16-county, state-funded regional economic development organization, announced “Randy Parton, brother of mega-star Dolly Parton, inked a deal with private developers and the city of Roanoke Rapids for development of a music theater and entertainment district” along Interstate 95.

The theater was to anchor an entertainment district, including shops, restaurants, motels, and family recreational activities. The first phase, covering 116 acres, would attract $129 million in private investment and create 2,595 jobs, based on an economic impact analysis by researchers at the Carolina Center for Competitive Economics at UNC-Chapel Hill. The researchers also predicted the project would produce 12,250 jobs for the region.

Northeast Partnership CEO Rick Watson developed the concept for the theater and recruited Randy Parton to participate. Watson persuaded Roanoke Rapids officials they were competing with other North Carolina communities in his 16-county region to land the project. Watson’s conflict of interest became public after CJ revealed he had a one-third ownership interest in Parton’s company, Moonlight Bandit Productions. The partnership’s board of directors terminated Watson in 2006 for working for Parton while still being paid for his state-funded economic development job.

Parton invested none of his own money, the city borrowed $21 million, and state agencies added about $6 million to launch the project. State Senate leader Marc Basnight, House Speaker Jim Black, and the Department of Transportation under Gov. Mike Easley championed the project.

City officials had bet on Parton’s ability to manage the theater competently and attract enough customers to cover expenses. Before coming to Roanoke Rapids, Parton played at the Dollywood Amusement Park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Before the theater opened, Carolina Journal documented questionable feasibility studies, unrealistic economic impact forecasts, conflicts of interest, lack of transparency, reckless spending, a marketing campaign that was never funded, and Parton’s lack of management experience.

The theater opened in July 2007 as the Randy Parton Theatre. Parton performed with his newly formed band Moonlight Bandits. The first shows were well-attended, but the number of empty seats grew steadily over the next few months. Some nights fewer than 100 people showed up.

On Dec. 6, 2007, just as Parton was getting ready to take the stage, city officials determined he was under the influence of alcohol and sent him home. He never performed at the theater again, and the city renamed the facility the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.

  • kentclizbe

    Don Carrington investigated and documented every tawdry, cheap, corrupt step of the RR-Randywood scam.

    Carrington deserves the Pulitzer prize for his work on this scam. That was world-class investigation and reporting. A real journalist.

    Any idea where the main scammer, Rick Watson, is today?

    • civilwar 12

      Where are the city officials that did this scam?

      • Greg

        Unbelievably DN Beale, the former Democrat mayor and theater champion when this scam was conceived and hatched had the audacity to attended the signing by the new owners. Amazingly he made a statement to local media he believes the theater project was money well spent and considers the project a success, what? After my jaw dropped, my first thought was how stupid can one be, no wonder he is hated by almost everyone in Roanoke Rapids and consider the worse mayor in the history of the city. Then I realized he is the A Typical democrat who could care less about wasting 27 million taxpayers dollars when he suffers no monetary loss himself. One can only imagine what his financial gain was when this project was developed, surely this may be why he considers it a success when everyone else knows it was a complete waste of money and just another democrat conceived back rub project. Maybe it is time for his financial records and business dealings to be investigated, js.

  • civilwar 12

    The town officials that sold this abortion to the voters should have to pay for the losses.

  • William James

    “Economic developers” and the over payed “consultants” who sell these bills of goods to desperately depressed towns and cities ought to be jailed for racketeering. And what lies behind it all are the government grant programs, which throw taxpayers’ money by the basket full at one boondoggle after another. These scams are going on in places all over the country.

  • c647352

    This is so rich it has to be repeated: “The re-opened facility will be a “multi-purpose dining, entertainment, and performance venue [that] transforms into a premier travel destination anchoring the I-95 corridor in Halifax County.” Yeah, right.

    • chappy50

      Because it has been such an incredibly successful venue all these years. How stupid. Was Watson charged with anything criminal or sued for the millions of dollars spent on this black hole? Who got the money? $27 million dollars didn’t just vanish. Follow the money.