It was the ultimate in speculation. Officials from Roanoke Rapids, a town about an hour northeast of Wake Forest near the North Carolina-Virginia line, thought if the town built a theater, a really grand theater, where I-95 intersected little except grass and sky, a tourist attraction would be born. In turn, economic development would unfold around it.
And so in 2005, the 1,500-seat, $21.5 million Randy Parton Theatre was created. Rechristened the Roanoke Rapids Theatre, it's been newly leased to private owners who've re-branded it The Royal Palace Theatre, with Internet sweepstakes gaming 24/7.
It stands today in majestic solitude as an idea that was either years ahead of its time or just plain dumb.
Randy Parton, the dim star (and Dolly's brother) on whom Roanoke Rapids was depending to pull in the crowds, is long gone. Economic development, with the exception of a lone Hilton Garden Inn, has bypassed the town, which has a 14 percent unemployment rate.
Meanwhile, Roanoke is paying $2 million a year for the money it borrowed to build the theater and a surrounding network of curving roads, sleek streetlights and a strategically located roundabout that, thus far, connects the Palace to nothing.
But if every taxpayer in Roanoke Rapids got burned by their elected officials, residents of the small, historically African-American community of Brandy Creek—a neighborhood still using gravel roads though the theater is visible across a field—were especially torched. Now, 19 of them have gone to court suing in order to be refunded about $60,000 they paid in property taxes to Roanoke Rapids and Halifax County (including the Weldon school district) because of jacked-up land assessments based entirely on speculation, not reality, that the theater would be an economic boon.
The residents are represented by lawyers at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which maintains that the assessments in Brandy Creek were "illegally inflated" for the first three years following a 2007 revaluation in Halifax County.
Assessments are supposed to reflect true market value, attorney Peter Gilbert told local officials in an unsuccessful bid to get their money without a lawsuit. But, said Gilbert, "The true market value was never true."
For that matter, Brandy Creek residents never even lived in Roanoke Rapids until, as Louise Williams recalls, they woke up one day in 2005 to find that the town had annexed their land without a public hearing or any notice whatsoever. How? Roanoke Rapids officials had appealed to the General Assembly in Raleigh, which passed a law permitting the annexation. But no one told Brandy Creek.
"We went to bed in Weldon, and we woke up in Roanoke Rapids," Williams says. Previously, Brandy Creek was in the Weldon school district, but for municipal purposes it was part of the unincorporated area of Halifax County.
Shortly after the annexation, a real estate development company, Rock River Falls LLC, paid a total of $2.87 million for 32 lots in Brandy Creek. The previous landowners had leased the lots to tenants who lived on them in manufactured homes. Soon, those tenants and their homes were gone. Today, the lots remain vacant, a swirl of grass and unrewarded speculation.
But when Halifax County revalued the property two years later, officials determined that the remaining lots in Brandy Creek—those owned by Williams and the 18 others in the lawsuit that Rock River Falls didn't buy—were worth the same speculative price Rock River Falls had paid for its lots: about $90,000 apiece.
The revaluation increased the properties' value by more than 700 percent, and in one case by 1,400 percent, "far in excess of the true market value of the properties," the lawsuit states. In fact, before the revaluation, each of the remaining 19 lots had been assessed for an average of about $10,000.
Actual taxes in Brandy Creek increased more than 800 percent. Not only were the assessments higher, but residents were paying for town services (which were minimal, the lawsuit maintains) in addition to county services—as well as their share of the theater's costs.
For three years, Brandy Creek residents were overcharged, the lawsuit alleges, before they contacted the Center for Civil Rights. In 2010, its staff helped them get their assessments reduced to realistic levels—about $10,000.
In 2011, the General Assembly passed a bill that de-annexed Brandy Creek from Roanoke Rapids. The legislation had bipartisan sponsorship, including support from Republicans such Rep. Glen Bradley, a libertarian opposed to annexations in general, as well as some Democrats who'd voted the other way six years earlier but now saw the folly of the theater scheme and its impact on Brandy Creek.
Whether the Royal Palace, by that name or some other, will one day prove its detractors wrong is itself a matter of speculation. Roanoke Rapids Mayor Emery Doughtie, according to the local newspaper, the Daily Herald, still considers the theater and its surroundings "a life-changing piece of real estate for our city."
Early this year, Roanoke Rapids was prepared to sell the theater for $7 million, or one-third of the construction price, but the deal fell through. It recently signed a lease with HSV Entertainment, an Arkansas-based company that's trying a prototype—a combination of live entertainment and Internet sweepstakes games that look and feel like slot machines.
In short, the Palace, which reopened a week ago, is a casino for folks who can't afford to travel to a real casino. Internet slots are in the lobbies and the restaurant, though not in the theater itself.
Internet gaming is legal in North Carolina because of legal loopholes and a court decision that may or may not stand. But for now, at least, the Palace is open around the clock, seven days a week. The first show on the bill for the theater, a vast hall with raked seating that would work great in Nashville, is Oct. 11 and features country singer Chris Young. Lorrie Morgan, Clarence Carter and Percy Sledge will follow later next month.
On Monday, only a couple dozen cars were parked in the expansive parking lots, and inside the players were few. At the upstairs bar, though, the bartender said the Palace was packed every day from its opening last Wednesday until Sunday, when business slowed. "We're doing great," the bartender said, before letting loose with a high-energy whoop. When someone hits the jackpot at one of the gaming machines, its lights whir and the employees whoop.
Less than a mile away, though, Brandy Creek remains an isolated community of gravel roads and modest, mostly manufactured homes with no new municipal services to show for their time in Roanoke Rapids.
Williams, a community leader through the appeals and the lawsuit, said she never thought the theater was a good idea. "In a county like Halifax," she said, "it's a poor county. There wasn't any money in the county before, and there's no money in the county now."
According to recent census numbers, nearly a quarter of Halifax County residents lived below the poverty level from 2006–2010.
"I don't hope them bad luck," she added. "I hope them luck, but like I say, where is the money in Halifax [to support a gaming hall]? It had no business here. It's a nice place, but I've never been in it. It wasn't built for us anyway."
Williams thought the Halifax County Board of Commissioners would return the money when she and the remaining Brandy Creek residents petitioned them (with Gilbert's help) in January. Instead, the board voted 5-1 to reject the petition, saying the 2007–2009 assessments were done in good faith and, even if incorrect, didn't violate the law.
Roanoke Rapids town council followed suit, with Mayor Doughtie and others denying responsibility for the inflated assessments because they followed Halifax County's revaluation.
"I am surprised," Williams said. "We didn't have any trouble when we paid them; I didn't think we'd have all this trouble just to get our money back."
According to the suit, Williams would receive between $3,000 and $4,000 if she and her fellow plaintiffs win. But she's not counting on it, she said. "I can use it. But I'm not making any plans."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Theater of the absurd."