Charlotte selects Foundation for the Carolinas to restore theater

Charlotte selects Foundation for the Carolinas to restore theater


by STEVE HARRISON / The Charlotte Observer

Posted on December 18, 2012 at 7:50 AM

Updated Tuesday, Dec 18 at 8:00 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The bid by the Foundation for the Carolinas to restore the mothballed Carolina Theatre was narrowly approved Monday night by the Charlotte city council, despite the wishes of some council members to sell the site for more money to a rival group.

The foundation, which will buy the property on Tryon Street for $1 from the city, plans to renovate the theater – which has been vacant since 1978 – into a nonprofit hub. It also plans to build an office building on the site, in front of the theater.

Built in 1927, the city-owned theater at 230 N. Tryon St. is Charlotte’s most high-profile vacant building, located just two blocks from Trade and Tryon. For a time, it was the flagship of Charlotte entertainment, hosting celebrities such as Bob Hope and Elvis Presley.

Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon argued in favor of a proposal from the ARK Group, which developed the N.C. Music Factory uptown. That group offered the city $500,000 for the site. It also pledged to restore the theater.

But an effort to support the ARK Group received only five votes, with Democrats Cannon, Michael Barnes, Beth Pickering, Claire Fallon and Republican Andy Dulin voting for the higher bid.

Voting against the ARK Group – and in favor of the foundation – were Democrats Patsy Kinsey, John Autry, James Mitchell, David Howard and LaWana Mayfield and Republican Warren Cooksey.

Cooksey said his vote wasn’t just about which group offered the most money. He said he went with the Foundation for the Carolinas because of the group’s history.

“I want this off the council’s plate,” Cooksey said. “I feel more comfortable with the foundation.”

But others said the ARK Group – led by Rick and Noah Lazes – was also worthwhile.

“We are in tough times, and we owe it to the community to make good business decisions,” Cannon said.

The city bought the theater, at 230 N. Tryon St., in 1986.

Another developer, CMP Carolina Theatre LLC, had an earlier agreement with the city remake the theater and build a condo tower on the site. But that project never got off the ground, and the city had given the group several extensions to its original contract.

Over the past several months, there was a fierce lobbying effort between the Lazeses and the Foundation for the Carolinas to woo council members.

The foundation had the support of several uptown leaders, including the Arts & Science Council and Lee Keesler of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

“Large-scale civic ventures require a champion,” Keesler said about the foundation’s bid.

The foundation, with its headquarters adjacent to the site, has proposed the theater and a new office building would be of a South Tryon Street “Civic Campus” that includes Discovery Place, the Main Library and Spirit Square.

The foundation plans to partner with a developer to build the office tower, which would be on the city’s tax rolls. The theater would be used for civic gatherings with entertainment on the weekends. The foundation could begin construction in three to five years.

The theater would be off the city’s tax rolls.

Rick Lazes said the foundation’s goals are admirable. But he said he didn’t think the new office tower is viable because of office vacancy rates.