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Theater sale delayed in Roanoke Rapids

In October, the city approved the sale of the troubled Roanoke Rapids Theatre for $12.5 million to Chicago businessman Lafayette Gatling.

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ROANOKE RAPIDS, N.C. — The sale of the Roanoke Rapids Theater has been delayed because of technicalities with paperwork, city leaders said Friday.

In October, the city approved the sale of the troubled entertainment venue for $12.5 million to Chicago businessman Lafayette Gatling, who has said he wants to expand the facility to around 5,000 seats.

The $21.5 million theater has faced a number of challenges since opening in 2007, including poor ticket sales, a number of management issues and a contractual buyout of the theater's former namesake, country music singer Randy Parton.

Officials said at a Friday news conference that the hurdle in closing the deal with Gatling has to do with the original terms and conditions of the theater loan.

The city wants to enter into a lease-purchase agreement under which Gatling takes the theater and pays the city monthly payments until it is paid in full.

Both parties insisted Friday that they hope to have the contract signed within 30 days.

Gatling also talked more about his plans for the theater and the surrounding area, the planned Carolina Crossroads along Interstate 95. He said he wants to have a venue for boxing, rodeos, ice skating and soccer.

He also said he has not ruled out changing the theater's name.

Gatling produced a Christmas show last month that brought more than 1,300 people into the 1,500-seat facility – a welcome change for city officials after it sat closed for several months because of troubles.

The theater lost Parton as its headlining act and manager in December 2007 because of lower-than-projected attendance and revenue as well as controversies over spending.

Ticket sales remained low afterward, and the theater lost more than $1 million in the first quarter of 2008, including the costs of buying out Parton's contract.

The losses played a role in a 5-cent increase to the local property tax rate that city officials approved in July.

Boston-based UGL Unicco, which the city hired to manage the theater after Parton, terminated its contract with Roanoke Rapids in February 2008, claiming the city owed the firm more than $100,000.

The city then decided to manage the theater independently and eventually struck a deal with Gatling.

Other troubles have also come up, including a lawsuit filed by a Roanoke Rapids citizen against Parton and others involved in the original deal. The case was thrown out after the North Carolina Business Court found the plaintiff lacked the appropriate standing to sue.

The case has also raised questions by some over how the city has handled the theater project.

Mayor Drewery Beale has asked all local government bodies to support the sale of the theater to Gatling. Halifax County Commissioner Rives Manning says he has concerns.

"I am not supporting anything until I've read it," Manning said Friday. "I have not seen a plan. I have no idea what is in the plan. I don't sign by a pig in a poke, and that's basically where we're at."

Beale declined to comment.


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