Rural Center "bent rules" to fund Indian Trail theater

Jun. 22, 2013 @ 04:53 PM

Union County Sen. Tommy Tucker was named in a news story scrutinizing a $300,000 grant to develop Stone Theater in Indian Trail.

Last week, the Raleigh News & Observer published a two-part investigative series on the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. The Center is a non-profit, taxpayer-funded economic development group that provides incentives to businesses that will bring jobs to rural areas of the state. According to its website, the Rural Center focuses on strengthening agriculture, the state’s equine industry, dislocated workers, drought recovery, biofuels, water quality, personal entrepreneurship, rural economies, workforce development and youth engagement.

But according to the story, the Rural Center’s grants went to benefit fast food restaurants, Walmart and other national retail stores, a sweepstakes software company, golf resorts and discount stores. Some of the funded projects were never completed or produced fewer jobs than promised, which violated the Rural Center’s rules.

The Rural Center claimed it created jobs when it they did not exist or before the project was complete and employees were hired, the story stated.

Among the projects detailed in the News & Observer story was the 14-screen Stone Theater which opened in Indian Trail last July. Tucker worked with Rural Center president Billy Ray Hall to get $300,000 in taxpayer money to help develop the movie theater.

The story quotes Hall as saying Tucker put him “on the spot” about the center’s purpose, then asked if there was a way to get a grant for the theater. The story states Union County’s growth made it ineligible for Rural Center funds according to the center’s definition of a “rural” area. The center then changed its definitions to include Union and several other counties that outgrew their rural definitions.

Stone Theater developers needed $1.6 million for interest payments, according to the N&O story. Hall told Tucker in a Dec. 13, 2011 letter that state law allowed grants up to $5,000 per promised job for private developments. Since developers stated only 30 jobs would be created with the theater, that would only secure $150,000 for the theater. Hall also stated the center would have to bend its own rules to give $300,000 to the project, according to the story.

Hall and five members of the Rural Center executive board agreed to a one-time exception to provide $10,000 per promised job. Some of the $300,000 paid for internal roads and sidewalks, work that was done by one of the developers, Monroe’s Billy Norwood.

Norwood and seven other theater project developers contributed a total of $6,500 to Tucker’s campaign for reelection, the News & Observer story states.

Tucker said he was “disgusted” by the story’s suggestion of impropriety. His real reason for pushing for development money was to spur road improvement.

“I was looking for government money for developing Sun Valley community for the benefit of Indian Trail,” Tucker said.

Because of the theater project and the jobs it created, Tucker and Rep. Craig Horn R-68 got $125,000 from the senate and house respectively to improve the intersection of Old Charlotte Highway and Wesley Chapel-Stouts Road. It was a “pretty big piece of the story” left out by the News & Observer reporter.

“That was $250,000 Mr. Horn and I were able to get in conjunction with the City of Indian Trail which put roughly $200,000 into the project,” Tucker said. “The city did a lot to get the project started.”

Without the theater project, the intersection was not as high a priority for improvement by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

Tucker also denied any connection between the developers’ campaign contributions and his participation in getting the $300,000 grant.

“I’ve known Billy Norwood and the rest of them for years,” Tucker said. “I stated to the (News & Observer) reporter that I’ve known these fellows for years and I’d hope they gave me money for who I am and not what I could do for them.”

The one-time exception by the Rural Center to double the payout for promised jobs was a decision made solely by the Rural Center’s board.

Tucker said he believes the $300,000 in taxpayer money to develop the theater amidst an economic recession was a good use of the funds.

“If you want to imply that I got state money for my district, for the people I represent, in order for them to improve a dangerous intersection, then I’m guilty,” Tucker said.