Local News

New Roanoke Rapids leaders face same music theater woes

Posted March 8, 2010 4:10 p.m. EST
Updated March 8, 2010 6:19 p.m. EST

— The Chicago businessman who agreed last year to take over the troubled Roanoke Rapids Theatre has missed two lease payments, as the music theater continues to be a drag on the city's finances.

Lafayette Gatling, a North Carolina native who has built a business empire on shopping centers, an Illinois casino and a chain of funeral homes, a year ago agreed to a $12.5 million lease-purchase plan for the Roanoke Rapids Theatre. Gatling hasn't made his February and March lease payments, which total about $196,000, city officials said Monday.

"We want the Gatlings and their business to be successful, but we've got to treat this as a business proposition," City Manager Paul Sabiston said.

A spokeswoman for Gatling's company blamed the slow economy for the late payments and said the entrepreneur hopes to get up to date on the lease this week.

The late payments are the latest financial misstep for the music theater.

Roanoke Rapids took out a $21.5 million loan to build a 1,500-seat entertainment complex that was initially headed by and named for country music singer Randy Parton, the brother of entertainer Dolly Parton. Officials expected the project would spur growth along Interstate 95 and generate enough tax revenue to pay off the loan.

The relationship with Randy Parton quickly soured amid allegations he misspent money and showed up drunk at a performance, and the City Council approved a $547,000 settlement in March 2008 to buy out his contract. Officials then pulled his name off the theater, renaming it the Roanoke Rapids Theatre.

The split wasn't enough to stop the flow of red ink, however.

Slow ticket sales prompted officials to close the theater temporarily in the summer of 2008 and forced a five-cent increase to the local tax rate to help pay off the loan, which runs through 2027.

"Right now, what I think we're having to do is to look at the long-term benefits of the theater," Mayor Emery Doughtie said.

Doughtie and two City Council members won landslide elections in November over incumbents who had backed the music theater project.

The new mayor said Monday that he's concerned about the late lease payments, adding that Roanoke Rapids might have to trim its budget if the theater continues to struggle financially.

Last year's budget cuts, for example, forced the city to close its recreation center on Saturdays. Jacob Tripp, who plays basketball at the rec center with his friend, Chad Hedgepath, said he doesn't want to see any more cutbacks.

"This is about the only place to play basketball because everywhere else they won't allow us to play," Tripp said. "Just maybe (close it on) Saturday and nothing more. I hope it isn't the beginning of something bad."

Doughtie said he would like to see more events scheduled at the Roanoke Rapids Theatre and more advertising to promote events.

The spokeswoman for Gatling said he recently invested in advertising.