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The stakes on the Wayne

The Top Story by Chris Graham

How’s this for a juxtaposition? Wayne Theatre Alliance chairman Bill Hausrath calls himself “an eternal optimist,” while I’m an preternaturally-pessimistic political realist. But while Hausrath is wondering aloud if the Wayne project can survive without already-promised city funding coming as expected, I think it can, or rather, that it has to.

The issue is soon to come to a head, pushed by the change in the political majority on Waynesboro City Council in the May city elections, with a conservative bloc led by Vice Mayor Frank Lucente now in charge in City Hall, and pushed by a story in the Sunday edition of The News Virginian, in which Lucente made it clear that he will not support future funding for the Wayne project.

The city council and the Waynesboro Economic Development Authority entered into a funding agreement with the Wayne Theatre Alliance earlier this year that stands to deliver up to $700,000 to the Alliance over the next 10 years as long as the nonprofit meets certain performance-based criteria. The first installment of money under that agreement, $200,000, is to be paid out when the WTA obtains an occupancy permit for the theatre, which is projected out in two years, if the redevelopment effort comes to fruition on schedule.

The sabre-rattling from Lucente – who told the NV for its Sunday front-page story that “(n)o council can obligate future councils” in regard to the nonbinding performance agreement, then asked and answered his own question, “Am I going to support giving the Wayne Theatre any more money? The answer is no” – gives us, I think, a succinct and unequivocal guide as to the future of the funding agreement, though Hausrath, showing his eternal-optimist side, isn’t willing to give up the ghost just yet.

“Do we give up? Or do we basically say, Let’s work together to do as much good as we can? In my mind, I’m an optimist that the present city council can see the value in what we have, and that we’ll find a way to have the project move forward,” Hausrath told me.

For my part, I think – scratch that, I am confident – that we can find a way to move the project forward. I’m not sure that we can count on it involving continued city funding, though. Lucente, Mayor Tim Williams and City Councilman Bruce Allen swept to resounding victories at the polls on May 6 on the strength of their promise to voters to rein in city spending, including continued spending on the Wayne project that was talked about quite a bit in the spring campaign.

I want to believe that we can find a way to make the project happen even without continued city money. The Alliance, significantly, has already received more than $2 million in commitments from its community capital campaign, with another $2.5 million in state and federal grants and historic tax credits also a part of the equation. I say this recognizing that the capital campaign still has another million dollars to go before it meets its goal, and even then the project is short a million or two million dollars from the $7.5 million price tag that is currently being thrown about as a bottom-line figure for the redevelopment work.

“We’ve got some issues to overcome. We’re not home-free,” Hausrath said. “We’ve got budget issues, we’ve got financing issues, we’re going to have programming issues. It’s a big, big job. It’s what people do for a living. So we’ve got to make the decision, Is it worth it to us on a personal basis?”

The phrasing there has me worried. As much as I want to believe that we can keep this moving in the right direction even without the city continuing to be on board, and I don’t want to believe that we’re near a make-it-or-break-it point, it appears that we could be getting close to that.

“That’s been my whole approach with bringing this to the forefront. If we’ve got four years of this, and they’re not going to play, and they don’t see any value in what we’ve done, and they’re willing to risk that the whole thing might go south, tell us. And then let us make a decision as to whether we think we can make it move forward or not,” Hausrath said.

I think it’s fair to suggest at this point that the metaphorical ball could be said to be in two courts, if that makes sense. For all his bluster, Frank Lucente has to concede that the Wayne Theatre project that he has expertly made a political football could be dealt a blow that would not only be damaging to his political rivals, of course, but ironically, by adding to the legend that he has actively sought as the chief foe of the Wayne, to himself as well. Shifting our attention, then, to Hausrath, whatever political capital he has left after the most recent election would seem to be almost entirely tied to the bottom-line success of this eight-years-in-the-making effort to transform the Wayne into the centerpiece of a reborn downtown district.

Hausrath is forever after Icarus, who tried to fly and crashed into the sea when he reached too high and his wings were melted by the sunlight; while Lucente is forever after the Grinch who just couldn’t stand people singing and being happy with themselves, and so stole Christmas to show them what he could do. Not exactly the way you want history to remember you, in either case.

Them’s the stakes, such as I can lay them out for us.

Which brings me back to my pessimistic optimism. Maybe Lucente comes around on the subject of city funding. Maybe the Wayne Theatre Alliance figures out a way to make things work without the city as a continuing partner. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen, but it’s going to happen. Because we all stand to lose too much for this not to happen – some way, somehow.

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