A proposed Alleghany County museum that would display 6,000 teapots worth more than $5 million has become the poster child for pork barrel spending in the recently passed state budget.
A $400,000 earmark for the Sparta Teapot Museum was frequently mocked in the media in the past week, and by Republicans in the legislative minority. The state GOP said the budget contained at least $40 million in pork barrel projects, and in a press release called the teapot allocation “egregious.”
But Rep. Jim Harrell III, an Elkin Democrat who sought the funding in the state budget, said the museum’s critics don’t know enough about the project to evaluate its worth.
“It’s only because of the title that it’s receiving any grief,” he said. “It’s a great location for travel tourism.”
Sparta, nestled near the Virginia line about a six-mile trek off the Blue Ridge Parkway, has lost one-third of its workforce in manufacturing plant closings since 2000. Patrick Woodie, a former Alleghany County commissioner and now executive director for the teapot museum, said the project represents the area’s first concerted effort to emphasize tourism over manufacturing to develop economically.
“I wouldn’t say we’re backing off manufacturing,” Woodie said, “but it’s a safe bet that it will make up a smaller percentage of our workforce.”
Like many other North Carolina communities, Sparta and Alleghany County in recent years experienced an economic decline with the closing of several plants, followed by many downtown retail businesses. Perhaps the toughest punch came with the closing of Bristol Compressors in early 2002, seven years after state and local governments cobbled together more than $15 million in incentives for the plant. Local officials sued to recover the more than $5 million it gave Bristol, but because of weaknesses in the contract, received only $1.3 million back in a settlement. Much of that money was redirected to help lure a Martin Marietta plant to the area.
Woodie said he knows manufacturing will never be the presence that it once was in Alleghany County, but he also knows that tourism isn’t going to be the “silver bullet” to slay economic woes, either.
“We don’t see the (Blue Ridge) Parkway as the panacea,” he said. “We know there’s a limit to how many we’ll draw.”
Instead, area leaders view the teapot museum as a unique attraction that will help foster overall downtown redevelopment.
“I don’t think anybody can perceive the future and understand the implications of it totally,” said Warren Taylor, a Republican Alleghany County commissioner. “What I’m saying is it will have a definite effect on the revitalization of our downtown.”
According to Woodie, the teapot museum idea materialized when Jean McLaughlin, director of the Penland School of Crafts, met Sonny and Gloria Kamm during a trip to Los Angeles. The couple had been considering where they might permanently display their collection, and McLaughlin recommended the North Carolina mountains. The Kamms, after a phone conversation with Winston-Salem philanthropist R. Philip Hanes, Jr., visited Sparta and quickly decided the area could benefit from their collection.
Woodie said a traveling exhibit of many of the Kamms’ teapots at museums around the country has “spectacular attendance.” An economic impact study determined that the project would attract 61,000 visitors annually and $7.5 million in new tourism spending.
The museum is expected to cost roughly $10 million to build. As many as a dozen employees would be hired, and the proposed annual operating budget would run between $800,000 and $900,000.
Besides the state grant, the teapot museum has been awarded $380,000 out of the state’s tobacco settlement money through Golden LEAF, and $25,000 from the AdvantageWest regional economic development partnership. Woodie said the museum has also received about $500,000 in individual private contributions and $78,000 in grants from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
Woodie also said $1 million in federal funds have been requested through U.S. Senators Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole, which could be allocated through a Housing and Urban Development bill currently under consideration in Congress. Burr’s office did not confirm or deny that he was pursuing federal money for the teapot museum.
Asked why public money was needed, Woodie said, “We’re really looking for partners at all levels. We’re just really pursuing every avenue.”
Rep. Harrell said he hoped the public “investment” would spur private donations.
“Hopefully (the state’s) commitment and the federal commitment will help people, as they are considering projects, to make a contribution,” Harrell said.
Republican State Sen. Don East, who represents the area, said if lawmakers are going to be passing out “pork” that he wants “poor little Alleghany County to get some too.” But he added, “If we could remove all pork from the budget, I’d be more satisfied.”
Of the teapot museum, East said, “It’s a crapshoot whether we will ever realize a lot out of tourism. Hopefully we will.”
Taylor, the county commissioner, was more optimistic and regretted the stigma that has been attached to the project. Still, he said the “any publicity is good publicity” principle could mean the current focus on the teapot museum ultimately is positive.
“At least people will know what we’re trying to do,” Taylor said. “Eventually, when it’s realized, it will be something the state will be proud of.”
Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected].