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Apples and Oranges When Considering Hayes Center’s ‘Pitfalls’ to Predict Appalachian Twin Theater’s Success

Update: Aug. 22, 2012. At Wednesday’s Appalachian Theater Committee meeting for the restoration of the old Appalachian Twin Theater, group members discussed the following article and mentioned a few differences between the downtown theater and the now-foreclosed Hayes Center in Blowing Rock. Any information added is in italics below. 

By Jesse Wood

July 25, 2012. When the Town of Boone agreed to front the Downtown Boone Development Association (DBDA) $750,000 to purchase the gutted Appalachian Twin Theater last fall, some felt this was a terrible decision – especially in light of the struggles haunting the Hayes Performing Arts Center in Blowing Rock and the costly renovation needed to restore the old theater in downtown Boone.

After High Country Press published a story regarding the potential purchase of the old Appalachian Twin Theater, one person commented, “Oh, [does] anybody remember the Hayes Performing Arts Center? Why do we need to build another? The Hayes Center is located in a high-tourist area and even closed after the money dried up.”

This was posted in September. The Hayes Center hadn’t announced its final curtain call, yet. (That would come several months later.)

After opening in August 2006; the Hayes Center shut down to restructure the organization and examine financial shortcomings in 2009. It reopened in spring 2011 but shut down for good in February 2012 after foreclosing with more than $4 million owed on the mortgage.

But looking at the Hayes Center’s unsuccessful past to predict the Appalachian Theater’s future is like comparing apples to oranges, according to those who have been involved in both theater projects.

And the differences are glaring.

For one – location. While the Appalachian Twin Theater is smack-dab in the middle of downtown Boone with thousands of ASU students just a short walk away, the Hayes Center wasn’t within walking distance from downtown Blowing Rock and was located off U.S. 321.

Another thing mentioned is the size difference of the two theaters. While the future restored theater in downtown Boone will likely hold between 600 and 700 seats, the Hayes Center accommodated half of that.

“The Hayes Center was too big to be small and too small to be big,” said Kent Tarbutton, who was on the board of trustees of the Hayes Center.

“With 348 seats, it couldn’t bring in acts that were big,” Tarbutton said, adding that the ticket prices had to be raised outside of affordable ranges to bring in well-known acts for the the center to be self-sustaining.

There is also the history of the Appalachian Twin Theater that the Hayes Center could never have. The Hayes Center wasn’t a community gathering place 70 years ago. Old-timers don’t have memories of sitting in the center as a child or watching the “News of the Day” before a film and learning about events outside the High Country. Those memories don’t exit, and Tarbutton called this the “nostalgia” factor that works in the Appalachian Theater’s favor. 

The Hayes Performing Arts Center in Blowing Rock

For Tarbutton, though, the two “pre-dominate reasons” for the failures of Hayes Center weren’t the history, size or location: the center opened with too much debt – during the Great Recession. The Hayes Center was built in 2005-06 to the tune of $9.6 million before enough pledges to cover the construction costs were secured.      

“It opened with about $5 million [of debt] – four more than it should have in my opinion,” Tarbutton said, adding that the center accumulated more debt through operation costs. “It used credit to continue. Good money following bad, and that put the nail in the coffin.”

When the Hayes Center foreclosed in February, outstanding debt on the mortgage was nearly $4.6 million, Tarbutton said.

At an Appalachian Theater Committee meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 22., attendees who worked with the Hayes Center before it foreclosed mentioned a few other differences. 

Keith Martin, a professor of theater at ASU and consultant to the Hayes Center, said one difference was that “everything was secret at Blowing Rock.”

“Here [meaning the Appalachian Theater public meetings] it has been so open and out in front.” 

Another person attending the meeting who was involved in the Hayes Center, said there was a “good-ol'” boy network involved in the proceedings of the foreclosed theater in Blowing Rock.

“Here there are no special interests. It doesn’t matter who you know or what favors you can find elsewhere,” this person said, regarding the Appalachian Theater.

Martin also discussed that the Hayes Center had a resident company – the Blowing Rock Stage Company, which had offices and rehearsals inside the Hayes Center. He said the company had “right refusal of dates and support spaces.” 

Terri Dillon of the financial consultants Whitney Jones Inc., said in surveys sent to members of the community, she found that some people were hesitant to support the new theater in light of the defunct Hayes Center. But once all the differences were pointed out, Dillon said, those people were all for the restoration of the Appalachian Theater. 

At the request of request of John Cooper, who has been involved in the theater project on King Street since the old theater foreclosed last fall, Tarbutton attended the first three Appalachian Theater Meetings and shared his insights gleaned from the Hayes Center disaster.    

“You know we are looking at the pitfalls, [the Hayes Center] ran into, and we want to avoid those,” Cooper said, adding that the size of the venue and the amount of incurred debt stuck out in his mind with what went wrong in Blowing Rock.

Cooper also mentioned the history of the Appalachian Twin Theater and how the renovations plans include restoring its original 1940s art deco. He spoke of the proximity to downtown Boone and ASU and the potential for collaborations with ASU cultural programs. And he envisions the theater as a multiple-use venue – with live theater, historic films and live music taking place in the auditorium and conference meetings being held upstairs in a space that could accommodate 200 to 300 people.  

The silent phase of the capital campaign for the restoration and purchase of the Appalachian Twin Theater recently began. Currently, the DBDA owes “just over $500,000” for the purchase of the property, and renovations for the theater have been estimated at $4.2 million, which was called more “feasible” by members of the Appalachian Theater Committee after scaling down from the initial $6.2 million renovation concept.  

Pilar Fotta, the downtown Boone development coordinator, stressed that all the funds will come from private donations and no public money will be spent on this theater. And Whitney Jones of Whitney Jones Inc. mentioned at a meeting last Friday that the theater would be purchased within 90 to 120 days, which would mean that the Town of Boone’s three-year loan would be paid off ahead of schedule.

“Our theater will not be built until we have all the money and pledges in hand. We don’t intend to operate with debt,” Cooper said. “We intend to operate in the positive.”