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The day the music died? Waynesboro fails, again, on Wayne Theatre agreement

waynesboroThe City of Waynesboro will not honor an economic-development agreement with the Wayne Theatre Alliance, but you knew already this was going to be the case.

The agreement, dating back a decade, would have had the city contribute $140,000 toward the operations of the Wayne, which reopened last year, assuming that the theatre met a rigid set of performance expectations.

This, by the way, is par for the course in economic development, not just the performance incentives, but the whole shebang – money coming from a public entity to incentivize private investment.

The Wayne Theatre Alliance is hardly the first private business interest seeking public investment, and will almost certainly not be the last.

The way business gets done in modern America includes generous portions of public dollars.

Even just in the Waynesboro example, does PGI expand its Waynesboro operations in 2010, bringing 41 jobs to the local economy, without $4.55 million in state and local incentives?

Or how about the $3 million-plus that the city invested in private property adjacent to Interstate 64 in 2011, that will require millions more from the city to build infrastructure – roads, water and sewer – before presumably more investment to lure industrial, commercial and office clients?

The Wayne Theatre agreement tied the ability of the theatre to put butts in seats to support from the city to grow the base of theatre-goers outside the local market to draw from a wider market radius.

The monies, under the agreement, were to be used in part toward booking the kinds of shows that could bring in visitors from more distant locales, like Richmond, Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, the Northeast.

Those visitors wouldn’t be driving in for a show and then going back home after. They’re coming in for dinner, staying at a local hotel or bed and breakfast, maybe making a weekend of it, spending time and more money at local craft breweries, enjoying time hiking and biking the Blue Ridge Parkway and Appalachian Trail.

Those kinds of shows are much less likely to happen now, due to the limitless wisdom of the City Council here, and the irrepressible mayor, Bruce Allen, who can’t seem to escape the long shadow of former mayor Frank Lucente.

It was Lucente who so expertly used the Wayne as his vote-whipping device of choice, conjuring up images of little old ladies and their little old lovable husbands who don’t want to see their tax dollars going to support a theatre for the elites of Waynesboro to enjoy symphony orchestras and other high-falutin’ entertainment dreck.

At a work session on Wednesday, Allen signaled the death knell of the performance agreement, now not even worth the paper it was printed on.

“My constituents tell me it should be privately funded,” Allen said.

The bad news for Allen (and Lucente) is that the Wayne will live on despite the city deciding, once and for all, that it won’t man up to its end of an agreement.

The theatre has had success with sellout shows featuring a mix of country, bluegrass, blues and Broadway along with local theatrical productions, and youth education programming that regularly has school buses from across the region taking up space in adjoining parking lots.

What we won’t get is the visitors from far and wide – well, not regularly, anyway. The anecdotal stories of the couple from New Jersey who were Waynesboro to see Broadway star Chris Mann and the couple from California who happened into the theatre after a day on the Parkway to take in the Jersey Boys show are really just evidence of what could be if the city would live up to its agreement.

One other thing we won’t get – any kind of serious interest from anything resembling a serious economic player anytime soon.

It doesn’t take much to ask why would anyone in their right mind with, say, a manufacturing operation in need of a new home, or maybe a natural history museum looking for a potential high-traffic location for a satellite facility, to question whether the people who just reneged on a high-profile agreement with a homegrown business entity won’t do the same to them when the political circumstances warrant.

The Wednesday budget work session of the City Council isn’t actually the day the music died, because the notes will continue to emanate from the Wayne Theatre, the buzz-killing efforts of our city leaders here be damned to hell.

But it will go down in history as the day the local economy began its slog toward a slow, painful death, the cause a lack of oxygen.

Column by Chris Graham

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