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County warned to use caution

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

HILLSVILLE — Meeting in closed sessions to decide whether to accept a proposal to build the Mayberry Opry Theater on 91 acres of Carroll County land breeds suspicion in the public, one citizen told county officials.

Mike Goldwasser approached the Carroll supervisors at their Monday meeting, after sending letters to the editors of local newspapers, with concerns about transparency in the process and other steps that he feels need to happen before action can be taken on a proposal to build the theater near the county recreation park.

In order to avoid public mistrust, the supervisors need to use closed sessions sparingly and to involve the citizens in the decision-making process involving the county-owned property near the U.S. 58-Interstate 77 interchange.

Board Chairman Sam Dickson and County Administrator Gary Larrowe answered that officials are approaching this matter with great care.

The information that's been available to the public thus far about the Mayberry Opry Theater has not been great, said Goldwasser, who’d waited through a close session held that evening — plus a public hearing on the county budget — to state his concerns.

"We know there was a closed session with the IDA last week and we know that you’re meeting in closed session with the IDA this week," he said.

The process leaves a lot to be desired, Goldwasser said.

“I think that, as important as development of that land is to the future of this county, that there needs to be much more public participation in the consideration of what happens to it and I think the closed sessions are not a way to accomplish that," he told the supervisors.

By definition, citizens don’t know what the supervisors are talking about in the closed sessions.

"I hope your not making it a matter of convenience instead a matter of necessity,” Goldwasser said.

Given the history of Carroll over the last five years, he believes the supervisors need to make an extra effort to show the government is transparent and that citizens have some say in their own future.

Before matters go further, Goldwasser wanted to make several recommendations to supervisors about the absolute minimum steps that he felt needed to happen before the Industrial Development Authority and the supervisors could make a decision.

He gave the supervisors a written statement similar to the letter he had sent to local newspapers. His advice, based on talking to people in commercial development, included getting a commercial appraisal, seeking proposals from a number of parties, enlisting a commercial land broker’s assistance and, most importantly, doing the due diligence by researching the business partners, Goldwasser said.

“Anyone can promise a multimillion-dollar theater, a five-story hotel with a convention center, a 100,000-square-foot outlet mall and a school enrichment program with visiting artists,” a portion of the written statement said. “It sounds great, especially to a county struggling financially.”

Indeed, Goldwasser said that he could “promise to bring the Washington Redskins here.”

But what are the track records for similar types of developments by partners Weststar Investments and Mended Wings Productions? Goldwasser said he could find nothing on that.

And why were they unable to sign a deal with their first choice for locations, Mount Airy, N.C.?

The nature of the closed sessions breeds rumors about what is going on with this project, and the supervisors should act accordingly to avoid that.

“You’re inviting those problems on yourself by having unnecessary closed sessions,” he said.

While there’s no requirement in the law for the titleholder of the real estate — the Carroll IDA — to have a public hearing in order to sell it, Goldwasser said having one to share information with citizens would be a good idea.

He stressed a public meeting should be held before the transaction is completed. “It would go a long ways toward restoring faith in the transparency of county government and it might even provide some new ideas,” he said.

Writing a clause into the contract saying that the land would come back to the county if the development were not a success would not sufficiently protect the citizens. Goldwasser advised the supervisors to slow down and not succumb to pressure to make a hasty decision. “That failure would come with a huge cost in time, legal expenses and reputation,” he said in the letter. “The supervisors and the IDA have a fiduciary duty to the people of Carroll County. Do it right the first time.

“Let's not settle for anything less than the best that we can do.”

So far, Larrowe said, the IDA and the board of supervisors have just gotten together for an informational meeting. No negotiations are taking place at this time.

County officials want to make sure the process proceeds in a fair and equitable manner, and to air the information in public at this time would not meet that goal, Larrowe added.

All county officials involved realize that “we cannot afford to have bad things happen to this county as it has in the past,” Larrowe said, without specifying further.

He agreed with Goldwasser that protecting the citizens would require more than a clause stating the land would come back to the county if problems arise.

The due diligence is proceeding now, with the assistance of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership in Richmond, which has a full research staff, the county administrator said.

“I'm not sure we're anywhere close to dealing with anyone with this particular piece of property and the proposal that's at hand,” Larrowe said. “If anything happens — and that's a big if — it would be done in the most prudent, positive possible way for the citizens of Carroll County.”

Goldwasser explained he wanted to speak now, before it was too late. “It's just a cautionary word about what closed sessions do.”

It would be premature to share all the information with the public about the proposal, when someone might take advantage of that to make a different proposal, Dickson explained. The process is in its early stages.

The supervisors could avoid worrying the citizens, Goldwasser said. “Just make it clear that nothing's going to be done for six months and then nobody will be worried like I am.”

“When and if it’s done, you can be assured that there’s going to be a lot of thought and a lot of work done beforehand,” Dickson answered “We’re not going to get ourselves into a situation where we can’t stand to lose anything — rest assured at that. We’re on guard.”