Curtain rises on theater project

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

With only one proposal on the table, Carroll officials are still marketing 91 acres owned by the county — and a partner in the venture to build the 600-seat Mayberry Opry music venue says he welcomes competition.

Marshall Lineberry of Weststar Investments met with reporters — and Carroll Supervisors’ Chairman Sam Dickson, as it turned out — at the Crossroads Institute last Thursday to discuss the status of the Mayberry Opry project, after the county supervisors and the Industrial Development Authority members decided to market the land again.

Dickson confirmed on Thursday that county officials wanted something to compare with the proposal from Weststar Investments and Mended Wings Productions, and that's why they decided to seek more proposals.

The partners’ plan proposed to put a 600-seat music theater, a microbusiness park and an outlet mall at Exit 14 on Interstate 77

(Dickson happened to be at a planning meeting at Crossroads on Thursday, and he sat in on the news conference.)

“We neededee something to compare it to,” Dickson said to Lineberry about the county officials’ decision. “We needed to find out if yours was a good one, or it wasn't a good one."

Lineberry supplied local newspapers with written statements about the delay, provided estimates of the potential economic impact on Carroll from his proposal, showed computer-generated images of the Mayberry Opry and spoke about the potential future of the project for about 90 minutes.

Mayberry Opry Status

For his part, Lineberry said he believed the Mayberry Opry would become a reality.

The partners have other options if the Exit 14 property doesn’t come through, like land that Weststar Investments already owns at the fast-growing and busy Dublin exit off Interstate 81.

He completely supports the Carroll officials’ decision to seek more proposals — in fact, it was his suggestion, Lineberry said in the written statement.

This came after county residents Mike Goldwasser and Lacy Bowman sent letters to local newspapers asking county officials to use caution in making a decision on the use of the land.

“All questions, comments and concerns mentioned in Mr. Goldwasser and Mr. Bowman's letter, I felt, were fair and should be answered in time,” Lineberry said. “However, these types of questions should only be answered and made public when the IDA and the board of supervisors make the request, not Mike Goldwasser.”

While all county officials he’s worked with have acted professionally and tried to better the community, Lineberry said he feels the proposal that he submitted — providing all the information requested by county officials about creation of jobs, potential tax revenue and investment in the property — just served to test the waters.

“In hindsight, I feel my proposal was merely an appraisal of the property at the expense of Weststar Investments,” he wrote. “The preparation of this particular bid proposal cost my company $6,000, so I can only imagine what it will cost the taxpayers of Carroll County when IDA and the board of supervisors employ an outside firm to ascertain the value and market this 91 A/C parcel [as it is identified on county tax maps.]”

As a developer, Lineberry expects that work by an independent real estate broker will cost the county somewhere from $20,000 to $30,000.

“These funds could certainly be put to better use in the community,” he wrote.

It could, for example, go towards the restoration of the swimming pool at the county's recreation park — one of the few recreational opportunities left in Carroll, Lineberry said.

If reopening the proposal process will satisfy these individuals’ concerns, then Lineberry said he’s “delighted” that the county officials took his suggestion and he hopes it will go forward in a timely manner. “For, as we all know, with any business, time is of the essence.”

Remarketing the land will cause him to modify his proposal somewhat. “I have to look at it from a business perspective now, and the only way I can do this is to keep these numbers down as far as possible,” he explained. “And the only way to do that is to get that land as cheap as possible because the cost of doing business is growing at an alarming rate every day.”

Seeking new proposals for the land may work out well for the county officials.

“They may come in with somebody that could absolutely do something more phenomenal that what we propose and more power to them, I'll support them if they do — I'll try to get in on it from a business point of view,” he joked. “But, then again, it can backfire too, because what happens if my proposal is the only one back on the table? Where's that leave us?”

He hopes that multiple proposals will come in this time. “It might be 10 and, honestly, I hope there is 10 on the table — then they've got something to compare it to."

The Partners

Lineberry felt the need to clear the record about Mended Wing Productions, after hearing several questions in the community about its history — like why the company could not make a deal with its first-choice location in Mount Airy, N.C.

The partnership of Weststar Investments and Mended Wing came about after each company started talking with Carroll County Administrator Gary Larrowe and business development specialist Dallas Garrett on their separate projects.

Finding that negotiations on land in Mount Airy’s Piedmont Triad West Industrial Park were not going anywhere, Mended Wings began looking for other locations.

“Within two weeks, Mended Wings Productions was contacted by Carroll County officials and in October 2006, preliminary fact-finding meetings ensued,” Lineberry said.

Company officials met with the supervisors and IDA members, as well as Garrett.

The partners in Mended Wings — Gary Gray and Rodney Hoots, who have both been in the entertainment business for years — are good people, Lineberry said. They’re trying to bring a new and positive project to Carroll County.

“We never promised one thing to the county, we only proposed,” Lineberry said. “We’ve not asked for one thing from the county other than the opportunity to purchase this property.

“All we’re asking for is a chance.”

Mended Wings Productions, which received its limited liability corporation status from North Carolina in 2006, has been straightforward and candid with Carroll officials in every way, Lineberry said.

“All information concerning both companies has been given to the appropriate officials in Carroll County and will be made public at the appropriate time,” Lineberry said.

And, people can see the results of his company’s work taking shape on the southeast sector of the Exit 14 interchange, where Lineberry is building a United Country Real Estate office, putting in a coffee kiosk called Espresso Express and planning for another business.

He acknowledges there might not be enough room for his car wash idea there, but he could build a place for a catering business that he’s been talking to, or one for Talley Sign and Electric, which wants to relocate to Carroll.

Dickson noted that he’d heard rumors about road regulations limiting traffic on that site’s access road to only 40 a day.

That’s not true, Lineberry said. The Virginia Department of Transportation approved that spot for 1,500 vehicles a day, and did so years ago when there was an idea to have a convenience store there.

Lineberry praised the Industrial Development Authority for selling the 2.1 acres to him for $31,000 in order to build the real estate office and get that land back on the county’s tax rolls.

The topography made it a challenge to do anything there, but the United Country office was designed to fit the space available without having to invest an exorbitant amount in grading, he explained.

One piece of documentation that Lineberry supplied was a letter from the Virginia Housing Development Authority. It was a response to a request for funding to that agency for 100 townhouses he’s proposing near the opry’s location.

“As the one loan you currently have with VHDA on a property in Pulaski is in good standing, we look forward to hearing more details about this project,” was the response from Ann Bolen, the senior development officer at VHDA. “The Mayberry Opry and surrounding development appears to be a new and innovative way to bring economic development to Carroll County.”

A Tourist Draw

Creating jobs, boosting county revenue and attracting more tourists were the county’s guidelines for accepting proposals for developing the 91 acres of land, Lineberry noted. He hoped the developers that submit proposals in the future would be judged by the same standards.

Assuming the theater is worth $6 million at a real estate tax rate of 59.5 cents, that would bring in $35,700 a year to the county.

Similarly, if the 100,000-square-foot outlet mall is valued at $5.5 million, that would bring in $32,725.

If the mall stores sold more than $9.1 million in merchandise a year, that would produce $410,625 in sales tax revenue, of which the county’s portion would be $70,625, Lineberry estimated.

If the mall stores employed 175 people and paid them a wage of $6.50 an hour, that would be $45,500 in total earnings in a week, Lineberry estimated. This would be more than $2.36 million in wages a year, which could be spent on mortgages, food, clothing and vehicle expenses.

The opry theater’s estimated 55 employees could earn $743,000 total a year, if their wagers were $6.50, Lineberry said.

The 50 tenants of the shopping mall would pay $2,250 in rent each a month, which works out to $1.35 million a year, he said.

Lineberry would also expect neighboring restaurants, motels, gas stations and the Southwest Virginia Farmers’ Market to see increased traffic as a result of people who visit the opry and the mall, but there’s no way to estimate what the economic impact of that would be.

When he realized that factories were going out as a driving force in the economy and that tourism continued to grow, Lineberry decided he needed to shift the focus of his development business and learn about tourism.

He took note of the efforts of then-Gov. Mark Warner to make Virginia more of a tourism destination — in Southwestern Virginia that took the form of the Crooked Road, the self-guided driving tour to places steeped in traditional mountain music.

The lesson he took from this effort was to draw people in to your localities. That served as the genesis of the new real estate office on Interstate 77 — to better capture the visitors who want to buy land in the mountains.

Lineberry sees synergy in the Crooked Road — as well as the 70,000 vehicles a day on Interstate 77 and U.S. 58 — and the opry.

Projects like this have worked in places like Gatlinburg and Nashville, so why couldn’t a music venue work here? Lineberry asked in response to doubts expressed in the community.

“How come it can’t work in the bluegrass capital of the world?” he asked. “We’ve got more entertainers and more people who enjoy music here per capita than any other place I know.”

Other Concerns

A development like the opry a shopping center could spur more restaurants to locate at Exit 14, which brought to address Lineberry a rumor in the community that the project may lead to a push for liquor by the drink sales in the county — a measure that has failed in the past when put to a referendum.

“I know that Mended Wings Productions will have nothing to do with serving of liquor in any of their facilities,” he answered.

Lineberry respects other peoples’ views on whether they think alcohol should be sold. If they think the sale of alcohol is a sin, that’s their right.

“I don’t drink, I don’t partake in those kinds of behaviors, but is it right for me to judge what someone else does?” Lineberry said.

In his talks with restaurants about the potential development at Exit 14, all wondered the same thing, he noted.

“The three restaurants that I engaged in conversation with about relocating here, the first thing they asked me was ‘Can we sell liquor by the drink? Is it in the near future so we can start making plans for it?’” Lineberry said. “I'm not saying it’s for everybody, but I don't think it’s for everybody to decide what someone else should do.”

He agrees any development at the site should be handled in a controlled manner. Anything that comes in should be a nice restaurant, like an Applebee’s or a Texas Steakhouse, something that holds itself to a higher standard than an average nightclub.

There also have been questions about the future of the county’s recreation park — located adjacent to the property Weststar wants to develop — but Lineberry would like to see the park remain just where it is.

People that come to the rec park are potential customers for the mall or opry, he said. If a father and son want to go to a T-ball game, they could do so while a mother and daughter went shopping, for example. “I want it to be a community within a community.”

Fix up the pool and add some new amenities, and the park and development would complement each other, he said. “I had no intentions of removing the pool and I hope the IDA and board of supervisors leave it exactly where it’s at... all that needs to stay.”

A Few Words on Dublin

If the opry doesn’t work in Carroll, then there’s an opportunity in Dublin, Lineberry said.

Weststar Investments owns land there, and Lineberry’s already cooperating with Pulaski County to better link the exit area with historic Newbern on the Wilderness Road.

The county’s remodeling the courthouse there and the museum and creating a walking trail to better promote tourism.

Near several colleges and Claytor Lake, The I-81 exit gets lots of business. Positive factors include the Volvo plant, lots of traffic and a cooperative county to work with. Lineberry could see the possibilities there, if it comes to that.

Let the Officials Work

The proposed development for Exit 14 is a large project, and Lineberry understands that people want to know if the person that starts it has the capability to carry it through — especially after promises made by log home manufacturer AmerLink to create 200 jobs and a sawmill have not come to be, Lineberry said.

But Carroll County officials are capable of doing the legwork required, Lineberry said. Let the IDA members and county supervisors have a chance to do their jobs.

“They know what questions they need to ask... they know they need to go talk to and get references... maybe they need to look at some of my projects...” Lineberry said.

County representatives can pile into a county vehicle, drive around, look at Weststar’s developments, talk to their bankers and then report back to the public.

“I think it’s inappropriate for a couple citizens to automatically start tearing it down before the whole community before we even get started,” he said.

Lineberry encouraged anyone who wanted to share thoughts or ideas about the Exit 14 project to visit him at the new United Country Real Estate office.

He hopes to facilitate communication with the public by throwing “A Night at the Opry” at the Crossroads Institute in the near future, giving community members and local, state and federal officials a chance to mingle and learn more about the proposal.