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Roanoke Rapids Banks on Parton's Brother to Build Entertainment Hub

Roanoke Rapids is counting on the brother of country music superstar Dolly Parton and the theater in his name to build an entertainment destination.

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ROANOKE RAPIDS, N.C. — This border city is counting on the brother of country music superstar Dolly Parton and the theater in his name to build an entertainment destination.

Randy Parton, best known for riding the coattails of his sister and a handful of his own country songs that made the music charts, is the linchpin for Carolina Crossroads -- an entertainment hub that will feature live entertainment, retail shops and other prospective attractions.

The Randy Parton Theatre is the foundation. The city of Roanoke Rapids borrowed $21.5 million to build the venue, scheduled to open Thursday with a two-hour Parton show titled "A Little Bit of Life."

The city's contract also promises to pay Randy Parton an artist fee of $1.5 million per year to perform and run the theater. He also will receive a monthly house and car allowance paid for by private investors.

Although some are dubious about the official projection of 300,000 patrons in the first year, one of the people with the most to lose says Parton deserves much of the credit for what's happened so far.

"A lot of this development going up wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for Randy Parton," said Michael Dunlow, the lead developer for Carolina Crossroads. "People aren't giving Randy a chance."

Dunlow owns about 1,000 acres for the complex, including a field that has been converted to an outdoor venue where Willie Nelson will perform this year.

One reason for doubt is that Parton had his last hit was in 1983 when "A Stranger in Her Bed," reached No. 92 on the Billboard country charts. But he's the only name on the playbill through the end of 2007.

The project also hasn't come together as quickly as planned.

For example, the 40,000-square-foot theater, which seats 1,500, was supposed to open as early as March. And leaders at this city near the Virginia border wanted as much as 200,000 square feet of other amenities at Carolina Crossroads by now, according to the contract with the city, the developer and Parton.

But several restaurants are planned, as is a Fairfield Inn by Marriott. Professional pool player Jeanette Lee has said she will build a facility for billiards and comedy acts in 2008.

"We have to be patient," said Phyllis Lee, the city manager.

Consultant reports done for the city indicate that in 2011, when the first phase of Carolina Crossroads is complete, the city should have $257 million of investment, $50.7 million in payroll and 2,433 jobs.

And one indicator of change shows that Roanoke Rapids is developing. In the first six months of the year, building permits were approved for $29.3 million of new investment - close to the $32.4 million for all of last year.

But some still doubt that Parton has the celebrity needed to carry the theater. He played bass in his sister's band and appeared at Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee In 1981, two of his singles made the Top 30 Billboard country chart.

"You look at his numbers and see that he was never a country star," said Michael McCall, a writer/editor at the Country Music Foundation, a nonprofit organization. "He got a break and got a couple of things going but wasn't able to sustain a career from it. He's just not really been on the radar."