Local Investors Say No, Feds Say Yes to Restoring Town’s Theater

Published August 16, 2013

If you can’t convince private investors to restore an old Tennessee theater, and if even state legislators refuse to put up half a million-taxpayer dollars, then the federal government is always good for that cash.

That was the lesson officials in the town of Jonesborough, Tenn., learned this month after Gov. Bill Haslam approved their request for $450,000 in federal funds for the town’s economic development.

Originally, town officials could find no private investors willing to fix up the Jackson Theatre.

Rejected by Legislators

Haslam tried unsuccessfully this year to convince state legislators to give taxpayer money to town officials so they could purchase the theater and run it on their own, according to the Jonesborough Herald Tribune.

Town officials found another solution, by successfully applying for a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“This is strictly federal funding,” said Brooxie Carlton, director of Federal Programs at the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, the agency that, along with Haslam, approved the funding.

The federal funds are designated for economic and community development programs.

Tennessee Watchdog asked Carlton if she and other state officials visited Jonesborough during the application process to determine if the project was worth taxpayer money.

Carlton said they had not.

“A site visit is not required for all projects. If it’s a project that is going to benefit an entire community, like this one, then we don’t do a site visit,” Carlton said.

No Answers

Tennessee Watchdog wanted to ask why taxpayers should pay for the project when private investors would not do so with their own money.

Carlton, however, ended the interview before that question was posed. She then requested that Tennessee Watchdog submit all further questions through e-mail. She had not replied to that e-mail as of Wednesday.

The theater originally closed in the 1960s during tough financial times, Deborah Montanti, director of the Heritage Alliance, a nonprofit that oversees many of Jonesborough’s historic buildings, said in an April interview.

“It closed before Jonesborough really started its downtown revitalization program. Historic preservation and tourism plays such a huge part in our economy now.”

Storytelling Fest Host

The town, for instance, now plays host to the National Storytelling Festival every October. The event has many private sponsors and attracts more than 10,000 people, according to the Festival’s Web site.

The event is so popular that parking spaces are scarce. Town officials use shuttle buses to ferry participants from the far end of town to the event itself.

Haslam spokesman Dave Smith did not respond to a request for comment.

Used with permission of TennesseeWatchdog.org.