I know people who will leave town.
People have looked me in the eye and said, should Carrboro lose the Cat’s Cradle at the hands of high-money and high-rise developers, they are out of here, too. These aren’t newcomers, itinerant hipsters or people who would move away, anyway. These are the solid people of Carrboro, natives and homesteaders alike.
If you haven’t been following the news from Orange County, here’s what’s happening: The developer and landlord of the new downtown Hampton Inn, Main Street Partners, wants to build another hotel next to iturgently, it seems. That is the site of The ArtsCenter, which wants to move to an arts complex with two other nonprofits on a site they’ve been offered in exchange.
But the project seemed expensive, so the organizations approached the town and asked that the taxes paid by the new hotel help fund their project. After a few closed sessions, the town decided to put the issue before the community through two public meetings. The initial shock came with the $15 million price tag of the new building and the request for $4.5 million of taxpayer money. Soon, we realized this might pose a serious threat to our beloved Cat’s Cradle, too.
The town board tried to stress that The ArtsCenter plan wasn’t its idea, that it was only seeking input. As a musician and longtime local government reporter, I got riled up and spent several days last week talking with some of the principalshoping to sort out what happened, what might happen and what, if anything, should be done. It is a mess of feelings and bureaucracy.
More than a decade ago, Carrboro opted for a change of direction downtown by deciding to raise the allowable building heights to five-plus stories. That set off a wave of audacious proposals, but only one project survived the recession: the one for 300 E. Main St., the wide parcel that houses the Cradle and Amante Pizza. The plan surrounds The ArtsCenter, which owns a space that’s not much bigger than the footprint of its own building. The Cradle has called that shopping center home since 1993, when the town helped lure the club away from Chapel Hill.
The 300 project was large in scope and included several phases, with a 140-room hotel, a parking deck and several boutique shops and restaurants to be followed, eventually, by more development. During the discussion that preceded the start of the 300 project, people talked a lot about how it would affect The ArtsCenter and the Cradle. In all of those conversations, including some I had myself, developer representatives insisted there would be a new, bigger Cradle. The ArtsCenter would be respected and supported, too.
But in the years since town approval of the development, both The ArtsCenter and the Cradle have had a difficult time dealing with the construction of their new neighbor. The ArtsCenter has had a number of administrative changes and continues to struggle financially, too, in part because of the building’s costly upkeep. As the real estate market fought for new life and loan rules remained tight, the project slowed, although the hotel has proven to be a success for the developers and town alike. Still, a new Cradle has never materialized.
Cradle owner Frank Heath expanded the main room and even added an annex for smaller shows. He maintains, however, that his space remains a few hundred shy of the optimum capacity he needs to stay fully competitive with the growing number of venues around the region, including the soon-to-be-rebooted Ritz in Raleigh. The Cradle has often been courted to move to some other nearby cities, but Heath says he wants to stay. The town also wants him to stay, and the people from Main Street Partners at least say they want him to stay, too.
Many of us had heard that there was behind-the-scenes talk about the 300 project’s expansion, but in recent weeks, it spilled out in a rather ugly fashion with two public meetings. Heath wrote a long letter with an even tone, explaining his position; a few days later, he appeared so frustrated he temporarily left a meeting. The developers say the Cradle hasn’t expanded because Heath has refused to sign on to a plan, and they don’t know what he wants. Heath says he’s been explicit about his needs, but he has yet to see a plan that works. The two sides don’t talk much right now.
Since last week’s public meeting, community concern for a treasured venue has rippled through this town. And, at last, there are some signs that the story is starting to shift. The town board asked some tough questions about the project, and I’m told that a $4.5 million check is not in the mail. It doesn’t appear that the large, complex deal on a new arts complex will get fast-tracked by the town, and the odds of any near-term moving of the Cradle have diminished.
But the current crisis illustrates that the risks to the Cradle and The ArtsCenter are real and will stay that way until something is done to untie a very complicated knot. The town government, its interested citizens and the parties to this episode should keep the conversation going. As much as The ArtsCenter might have wanted their new idea to succeed, they now have two good pieces of information: The town will only go so far, and they are sitting on a very valuable piece of property.
And the town should understand better where its citizens stand on the Cradle and the music community. This is not just some venue, but a pole star of the southeast and one of the dwindling number of iconic clubs that have stayed true to its roots and setting. We have a multi-generational music community in the Triangle. The Cat’s Cradle is a big reason why.
It’s time, then, to talk over reasonable goals for a new ArtsCenter and the development of Main Street. It’s time to rebuild communication and trust between the Cradle and its landlord so that they can do what they said would be done before the first shovel hit the dirt at 300 E. Main.
The market has sent a powerful message that change is coming. The past two weeks in Carrboro, I’m afraid, have shown we’re not quite ready for it.
This article appeared in print with the headline “No more fighting cats, ok?.”