(Updated at 6 p.m. Dec. 18, 2012)
CHARLOTTE — Charlotte City Councilman David Howard, who has close ties to the nonprofit Foundation for the Carolinas, showed up toward the end of a council meeting Monday night — just in time to cast what could have been the deciding vote in a close decision to sell the Carolina Theatre to the foundation for $1.
On the losing end of the 6-5 vote: Cornelius-based Ark Group development firm, a for-profit company that had offered a $500,000 competing bid for the uptown theater.
Howard, an at-large Democrat who had been absent for much of the meeting and the routine rezoning requests that were considered, slipped in during the debate over the theater, which has been on the city’s agenda for years, resurfacing this year when three competing proposals were brought to the city.
Without Howard’s vote, it would have been a tie between Ark Group and Foundation for the Carolinas, requiring a vote by Mayor Anthony Foxx, whose views on the theater are not publicly known.
After the vote, Howard left before the meeting ended, pausing only to bump fists with District 2 Democratic Councilman James Mitchell, who introduced the motion to award the theater to the foundation. That motion passed 7-4.
Howard, a second-term councilman, sits on the board of the nonprofit Charlotte Mecklenburg African American Community Committee, an affiliate of the foundation, according to Howard’s and the foundation’s websites.
On Tuesday, Howard said he was recovering from jaw surgery, which he said he underwent two weeks ago, and that’s why he surfaced just before the theater vote.
“I came in to vote on something I thought was important, period,” he told the newspaper. “I got up and left after the vote was over.”
With net assets of more than $600 million in 2010, the last year for which figures are publicly available through Internal Revenue Service documents, Foundation for the Carolinas is the biggest nonprofit community foundation in the area.
As an affiliate, the African American Community Committee operates under the financial umbrella of the foundation, according to the foundation’s website. The foundation manages the committee’s assets and helps coordinate its grants programs.
Howard on Tuesday said that even though he’s affiliated with the African American Community Committee, he didn’t have a conflict of interest in participating in the theater vote. City Attorney Robert Hagemann said in an email that he and Howard ”discussed potential conflict issues last week, and that I advised him that he did not have a conflict in voting on the sale of the Carolina Theater.”
The last-minute appearance and disappearance of Howard came after weeks of lobbying by the two leading contenders for the theater, which closed in 1978, was acquired by the city in 1986 in a bankruptcy proceeding and has been the subject for years of on-again, off-again redevelopment plans that have always fallen through.
On Dec. 3, the council’s economic development committee, chaired by Mitchell, voted 3-2 to recommend the foundation’s proposal to the full council. Mitchell, Howard and District 7 Republican Warren Cooksey voted for the foundation’s plan. Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon and District 3 Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield, both Democrats, backed Ark Group’s plan.
A third competitor, the for-profit CMP Carolina Theatre LLC, had offered $250,000 but failed in the past to redevelop the theater and was not among the finalists considered at Monday night’s council meeting.
Council members who voted for Ark Group’s plan Monday: Cannon; Democrats Michael Barnes, Beth Pickering and Claire Fallon; and Republican Andy Dulin. Mitchell, Howard, Mayfield, Cooksey and Democrats Patsy Kinsey and John Autry voted against it.
The foundation, led by Michael Marsicano, plans to tie the theater, at 230 N. Tryon St., into its headquarters building next door and find a private developer to add an office tower. The renovated theater would become home to lectures and civic meetings as part of a North Tryon Street “civic campus,” according to plans.
Ark Group, led by the father-and-son team of Rick and Noah Lazes, is the developer of Charlotte’s N.C. Music Factory complex of theaters, nightclubs and restaurants. The father and son said they had planned to begin renovating the theater within 18 months and open it within two years with a mix of entertainment, arts and civic fare. Further development would have waited until the duo deemed the market right for it, they said.
At Monday’s meeting, council members praised Ark Group and the foundation for their contributions to the city, and many council members said they wished the two could form a public-private partnership.
The Lazeses told the council that they had reached out with just such an offer to the foundation.
Marsicano said the foundation’s board met and considered the offer. But the board declined to vote on the substance of the offer, saying it was not in accordance with its “process” on acquiring the theater.
But “that may still happen,” Marsicano said after the meeting, suggesting that a partnership with Ark Group on the development and management of the theater might occur.
Marsicano went so far as to say that the $500,000 the Lazeses offered the city for the theater might be better spent by Ark Group in the future on the theater renovation.
“We’re looking at the long-term gain for the city, not the short-term gain,” Marsicano said.
Also after the meeting, Noah Lazes said he would look forward to considering a proposal from the foundation for a partnership.
“I think it would be terrific if that would happen,” he said. “But I think it would have been easier if it happened in the other direction, if we bought the theater and brought them on as partners.”
Tony Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (704) 247-2912 or on Twitter at @tonymecktimes.