FUQUAY-VARINA — Tired of being branded a small, rural tobacco town, a group of residents, businesses and nonprofits envisions what could become a gem for Fuquay-Varina: an arts and convention center that would draw visitors downtown, attract new businesses and provide cultural events.
And they’re not waiting around for the town to take the initiative.
Former Fuquay-Varina Mayor Bob Barker and his wife, Pat, have donated a $5 million warehouse on East Jones Street. They want the 140,000-square-foot facility behind the corporate headquarters of their company to become an arts center and convention hall.
The Barkers, who own the Bob Barker Co. detention-center supply firm, announced their donation on Monday during a special meeting of the Fuquay-Varina Board of Commissioners.
“It’s time for us to build a facility that’s long been needed,” Bob Barker said. “I think it will give us an opportunity to smash the old perception of Fuquay-Varina as a small, rural, redneck community.”
The donated building will likely move forward the cultural center’s plans by several years.
Consulting firm Hunden Strategic Partners recommended building a $39.6 million, 113,000-square-foot facility over three phases . A feasibility study from the firm said the town would lose money for years on an arts center without major private support.
But that was before the Barkers’ donation.
“The feasibility study, I think they looked at it too much as a profit-making venture,” Barker said. “It’s not a profit-making venture. It’s a service.”
Naomi Riley, director of the Fuquay-Varina Downtown Revitalization Association, noticed the Barkers’ nearly empty warehouse about a year ago and suggested the space could make a great arts center. The Barkers agreed.
They hired Corley Redfoot Architects of Chapel Hill to come up with preliminary plans, including a 620-seat theater, a second 245-seat black box theater, a 43,000-square-footconvention hall, 16 art studios, two 128-seat meeting rooms and two 1,200-square-foot dance studios.
Some of the building has been set aside for the church that currently leases space there. There is also room to build a new state-of-the art council chambers that could seat nearly 200 people.
It would cost about $10 million to $12 million to upgrade the building for its new use, Barker said.
The center would work as a nonprofit, independent from the town. Organizers plan to launch a public fundraising campaign in the next few months, Barker said.
Riley said the center would be an anchor and spur economic development in the town’s historic core district.
“A facility of this size will produce a substantial need for additional quality restaurants in our downtown in all districts,” she said. “It is my hope that people looking to open up a restaurant in Wake County will look closely at what will be done in this space and view Fuquay-Varina downtown as a great place to invest.”
Mayor John Byrne said this is one of the largest single contributions in the town’s history.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “This is a red-letter day for Fuquay-Varina.”
The town got left behind as neighboring communities began to boom, said Fuquay-Varina native and longtime banker Max Ashworth. A cultural arts center would put Fuquay-Varina on the map, he said.
“I remember a time when Fuquay-Varina’s (population) was bigger than Cary, Apex and Holly Springs,” Ashworth said. “It’s not now. When I tell people I’m from Fuquay-Varina, they say, ‘What? Where?’ I get a blank look. We have some people who think we’re in another county.”
Katie Dies, owner of Stick Boy Bread Co., said she’s seen a lot of businesses come and go downtown.
“The one thing that I hear from them is they didn’t feel like there was enough foot traffic,” she said. “A cultural arts center would be an anchor. It will encourage people to stop and look around. It will encourage other businesses to come downtown.”
Businesses aren’t the only ones who could benefit. Members of the local arts community say it’s too hard to host concerts, plays and performances in town. They need more space.
Kip Caton, a music teacher at Fuquay-Varina Elementary School, broke down in tears as she talked about the need for more local arts venues.
“We do the best we can,” she said. “Our high school theater department does a wonderful job. Even with five or six shows, you can’t get tickets. We have a lottery system.
“We want our children to have a center where they can experience what we teach them,” Caton continued. “Can you imagine what it would be like to be able to say tonight there’s a symphony playing, and we don’t have to go to Durham or Raleigh?”
Ramos: 919-460-2609; Twitter: @AlianaCaryNews