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Carolina Theatre's Fate Still Up In The Air


The non-profit Foundation for the Carolinas won the first round of the bid for the Carolina Theatre this week—for $1. A city council committee chose that bid from the Foundation instead of a half million dollar offer from the company that developed the NC Music Factory. But, it's far from a done deal.

The Carolina Theatre sits on Sixth and Tryon, and once upon a time, it hosted megastars like Elvis, Bob Hope, and Frank Sinatra. For the past thirty years it’s lain unused and neglected. But now the theater, and its first-class location, has three serious suitors.

One has already been spurned. The CMP Carolina Theatre contracted with the city in 2006 to build a condominium complex, of which the theater would be a part, but that contract expired last year. The company received no votes in Monday's committee to renew a modified agreement for $250,000.

The Foundation for the Carolinas and the ARK Group, which was behind the NC Music Factory, are still in contention. On Monday, the committee chose the Foundation’s proposal, putting it a step away from approval. ARK Group president Noah Lazes suggests it wasn’t the merits of its proposal, but the non-profit’s muscle that made the difference.

“I certainly won’t deny the David and Goliath comparison, and that we’re in the room with a big one,” Lazes says. “They have a lot of influence and a very influential board.” The Foundation for the Carolinas claims $1 billion in assets.

Both the Foundation and ARK Group want to renovate and reopen the theater with an emphasis on civic use. Both plans include building a space over the theater for a mix of non-profit and for-profit companies. Lazes says it should be an easy business decision.

“From a business standpoint, it absolutely does not make sense not to give it to a group that’s willing to put it on the tax roll, willing to write a check for it, has a big civic component, and even more importantly than all of this is we’re willing to start construction in 18 months,” Lazes says. “The Foundation doesn’t have any schedule.”

The Foundation for the Carolinas estimates it would take three to five years to break ground, but its plan would also include rebuilding a lobby for the theater. More importantly, the Foundation presented a grand vision for the theater, the office building, and the entire Sixth and Tryon block—a vision of an area at the heart of Uptown entirely dedicated to non-profits and civic service. And, it centers squarely on acquisition of the defunct Carolina Theater.

“On this Sixth Street block, you’ve got Discovery Place, the library, Spirit Square,” says Laura Smith, a senior vice president at the non-profit. “We’d love to see this project help catalyze a civic campus for this area, where you have an office boutique building that can house the Chamber of Commerce [and] other non-profits that can come and be part of this larger complex.”

Councilman James Mitchell heads the Economic Development Committee, which voted for the Foundation’s proposal. He says this vision of a civic campus is what sold him.

“They have Discovery, the main library, all of those entities are on that corner,” Mitchell says. “[The Foundation] talked about a comprehensive redevelopment for that four blocks, and I think that is huge when you’re talking about a transformational change that can take place. And only the Foundation of the Carolinas can bring it to that area.”

But a number of council members object to giving away the property for one dollar, and missing out on taxable revenue.  Councilwoman Claire Fallon is leaning toward ARK’s half million dollar bid.

“ARK is willing to give us $500,000, put [the theater] back on the tax rolls,” says Fallon. “I’m tired of giving away stuff for nothing and getting nothing in return.”

Fallon isn’t on the committee that voted on Monday, but she’ll get her chance December 17, when the full Council will decide the theater’s fate. That vote could go either way. Four council members either voted in committee, or told WFAE they plan to vote, against the $1 offer; three members voted for it; and, at least four say they’re undecided. That’s enough to swing the decision either way.