A proposal for Carrboro to finance part of a $15 million construction project near the Cat’s Cradle has rekindled simmering concerns about the long-term viability of the popular concert venue.
Some residents and town leaders have fretted about the Cat’s Cradle being forced to leave Carrboro because of increased competition in the region. The club’s owner, Frank Heath, has also complained about having too small a space to draw bigger crowds despite what he said were promises for a new building from his landlords at 300 E. Main St.
“Frank needs the opportunity to grow in one way or another,” said Alderman Bethany Chaney. “And he wants a better facility to maintain his competitiveness in what is an increasingly crowded field in the Triangle.”
The club’s predicament emerged after the ArtsCenter and the Kidzu Children’s Museum asked the town last month to contribute $7.5 million toward a new building to house both nonprofit organizations. Under the plan, the proposed Carrboro Arts and Innovation Center would be a 55,000 square-foot building on what is now a parking lot at the corner of East Main and Roberson streets.
If town leaders approve the project, Main Street Properties, the owners of 300 E. Main St., would replace the ArtsCenter at its current location with a five-story, 140-room Hilton Garden Inn and a parking deck with 250 spaces, according to a fact sheet that planners submitted to the town. The town could use the property and occupancy taxes generated by the hotel to pay for its contribution to the new arts building.
But some residents want to see the Cat’s Cradle’s need for a new facility accommodated as part of any future development.
In a statement to local media outlets, Heath said the Cat’s Cradle supported the initial plans to develop 300 E. Main St. in 2008 because he felt assured that a larger space for his club was forthcoming.
“Yet, regardless of any back and forth details, the fact remains a decade later that Cat’s Cradle is still in the same building, without a new home, and with only an offer for extended occupancy in its existing location,” Heath said. “This is the same location that had already been recognized, years earlier, to be not large enough, and that was indeed slated to be torn down by now for the development project!”
Laura Van Sant, a partner at Main Street Properties, said the Cat’s Cradle has rebuffed her group’s attempts to build the club a new space, and she was not sure why the issue was being raised as part of the arts project.
“To me, the Cradle is totally unaffected by this,” she said.
Deborah Miller, a program administrator for the N.C. Folklife Institute, said in written comments to the Board of Aldermen that she fears the Cat’s Cradle would be forced to close or relocate if it did not receive the same amount of support as other local arts organizations.
“The economic impact would be painful, but a more real loss would be to the sense of history that the Cradle has provided to the entire community over the years,” Miller wrote.
Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell said the Cat’s Cradle has grappled with a spate of nearby construction projects in recent years, forcing the club to change its entrances and exits. Another round of building could cause even more disruptions.
Donald McMillan, who lives within walking distance of the Cat’s Cradle, said he wants the club’s needs incorporated into the arts proposal or a guarantee from the property owners that the club would get support when the opportunity for a new facility arises.
“If the ArtsCenter is getting to move up, then you ought to take the other significant arts organization along with you, not necessarily in the same building but in the planning process,” McMillan said.
Whatever the impact on the Cat’s Cradle, the arts proposal brought into sharp relief a years-long dispute between the club and Main Street Properties.
In a statement, Main Street Properties said when it asked the town in 2008 to approve the 300 E. Main St. development, the group had been working for more than a year to create a larger space for the Cat’s Cradle. The group offered to build the location and either rent or sell it to the club at cost. But the group was surprised in 2010 when the club changed its mind and decided not to proceed.
When Van Sant read that statement to the Board of Aldermen at a Feb. 3 public hearing, Heath, who had been asked to speak next, left the room. He returned later and told the board the statement did not represent his take on the past six or seven years.
“So it took me a while to compose myself in the car outside,” he said.
Attempts to contact Heath for further comment were unsuccessful.
While the Cat’s Cradle has not asked for public financial assistance, aldermen interviewed last week said they would be willing to provide low-interest loans to the club. They asked town staff to gather data about how much the club contributes to the local economy, a study that would help make their case for increased town support.
“Traditionally, economic development is about recruiting businesses into town,” said Alderman Sammy Slade. “What we have here is the opportunity to support an existing business and make sure that they’re doing the most they can within our town.”
Town Manager David Andrews said the study would take into account ticket sales, property taxes, the number of club employees and the effect of concert crowds on local restaurants and bars, among other indicators. The study was expected to wrap up in about a month.
Haven-O’Donnell said the study would help town leaders as they try to sustain and enrich an important community institution.
“We don’t want to lose her in this conversation,” Haven-O’Donnell said, referring to the Cat’s Cradle. “We want her front and center in our thinking so the decision-making isn’t absent of her need.”
The Board of Aldermen is scheduled to discuss the arts proposal at its meeting Thursday.