ROANOKE RAPIDS, N.C. - The future was looking bleak in this crossroads town just below the Virginia line. One by one, the textile mills closed. Thousands of jobs vanished.
Then a man rode into town, a flowing mane of graying hair spilling from beneath his black 10-gallon hat. Like a Galahad with a guitar, he promised prosperity in exchange for faith.
This knight in shining armor was, at best, lesser nobility; Randy Parton is the brother of a queen of country music, Dolly Parton. Still, the town fathers mortgaged the future to build him a gleaming music palace in a fallow field overlooking the highway.
His name was spelled out over the Doric-columned facade, his monogram - "RP" - emblazoned on the walls and eggplant-hued cupola.
Music filled the valley and, for a time, the people were hopeful.
Then the accusations began flying: Parton was spending the people's money on drink and trips to Las Vegas, and enriching his children at the town's expense. When the mayor went to the palace one night, he says he found the "savior" drunk.
The knight was banished. Legal action was threatened. The townspeople called for the heads of the mayor and his council.
Not the fairy-tale ending the struggling city of Roanoke Rapids expected when it borrowed $21.5 million to build the Randy Parton Theatre.
The $13 million, 1,500-seat theater on Interstate 95 was to be the cornerstone of an entertainment-and-retail complex that would turn this slumping mill town into a "Branson East." But just five months after his first performance, Parton is gone amid complaints of low attendance, allegations of poor management and questions about how he spent $2.4 million in taxpayer money.
In his wake, townspeople are learning details of a public-private arrangement that guaranteed Parton and his "Moonlight Bandit" companies huge compensation with little personal financial risk. In hindsight, many say Roanoke Rapids should have known better than to hitch its wagon to such a low-wattage star.
"He's known as Dolly Parton's brother," Jane Joyner said recently, bathed in the red glow of the neon pigs outside Ralph's Barbecue up the road from the theater. "And that was about all he was known for."
When the project first surfaced in 2005, most agreed the city had to do something.
The town of 17,000 - where the tallest structure is a water tower - was reeling from the loss of 5,000 textile and paper mill jobs, and the tobacco industry that once sustained the surrounding countryside was also in decline.
"The kids who have grown up in my store, I used to sell them back-to-school clothes. . . . They're all gone," says Kenny Lakhiani, who has run New York Fashions on Roanoke Boulevard since 1985.
Randy Parton had been a staple at his sister's Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and had had a couple of minor country hits back in the 1980s. When the city learned he was looking for a place to build a theater, officials courted him heavily.
Some scoffed, but a 2005 feasibility study determined that this was far from a pipe dream.
Economics Research Associates - which has worked for the likes of Six Flags, Sea World and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey - noted that 39,000 vehicles passed the site daily, and more than 400,000 people a year stayed in existing hotels within 10 miles of the theater. Nearly 6 million people are within a 100-mile radius of Roanoke Rapids.
But ERA pointed out that the theater's immediate service area was predominantly black - traditionally not the strongest audience for a country music act. While the theater had a prime location on a major north-south interstate, ERA warned that the area "is not known as an entertainment destination."
Still, the firm concluded the theater was "a market-viable attraction concept," if "certain underlying assumptions are met." Among them were that "key elements" of the larger development - including two hotels and at least 200,000 square feet of retail - be up and running before the theater opened.