Local theater group wants to set the record straight and move on
Wednesday, Aug. 23
Linda Parris-Bailey is a little gun shy when it comes to the media these days. Over the last month, Carpetbag Theatre, of which she is executive and artistic director, has seen its fair share of headlines, and the fine print beneath was often riddled with criticism. And sometimes, the news she read was news to her.
In particular, it was from a News Sentinel story that she first learned that questions had arisen over the blighted property for which Carpetbag, a community-based touring theater ensemble, had recently been approved for a $99,700 community development block grant. The funding would be used to purchase and renovate the house and property into a digital storytelling center where visitors could create brief personal stories in a multi-media format and share them with the community. It sounded like a worthy proposal and a win-win situation.
The problem, as Parris-Bailey learned, involved the appearance of a conflict of interest. She and her husband Emanuel Bailey owned the property themselves, a detail that had not been brought to City Council’s attention before they approved the grant at a July 5 meeting. The city’s Community Development office, which was aware of the situation, responded that its failure to notify City Council was “inadvertent,” but it was enough to raise some eyebrows.
Especially when combined with the fact that the Baileys hadn’t paid city and county property taxes on that address for the past four years and were now approximately $3,800 in arrears. The article also asserted that the property was not blighted but condemned, a statement that Parris-Bailey denies. But no one asked her.
“The disappointing thing to me is that when it came back to the public through reporting, it sounded as though our organization tried to do something under the table,” she says.
At one point, Parris-Bailey was contacted by a reporter, but her request to hold the story for one day while she met with Carpetbag’s board went unheeded. The story ran without her or the board’s defense. And she says she was never contacted by city officials, who decided to revisit the vote at a meeting four weeks after it was originally approved.
Councilwoman Marilyn Roddy was the member who asked the Law Department to put the vote on the agenda for reconsideration. “I had some concerns about the project as it was designed,” Roddy explains. “I was primarily concerned about the ownership of the property and the transfer of ownership to the Carpetbag Theatre from Mr. and Mrs. Bailey.”
They were valid concerns, but Parris-Bailey was disappointed that they were not addressed to her directly from the get-go. “City Council as a body never contacted me,” Parris-Bailey says. “I was not contacted by the Community Development office. The person who raised the issue never contacted me. I was contacted by one member of Council who said, ‘I need to talk to you.’”
That member was Councilman Chris Woodhull. “When I first heard about it, it really concerned me,” he recalls. “So I just drove over there and talked to Linda and asked her directly what was going on.”
What was going on, explains Parris-Bailey, was not that she had consciously withheld information from City Council. She insists that she’d proceeded through the appropriate channels in her attempt to procure the grant for Carpetbag and had invited City Council to ask her any questions they had about the project before the grant was voted on. The taxes would be paid before the ownership of property was transferred, as she understood was required by law, and she says she had no intentions of using federal grant money to catch up their taxes as one councilman suggested. “Any money from the sale of the property was to go to bringing the property up to code,” Parris-Bailey says.
But why had Parris-Bailey handpicked that particular piece of property, which she’d owned since the mid ’80s, for the site of Carpetbag’s new digital storytelling project? “Location,” she answers. “The property is in what I’ve been describing as the cultural heritage district. For several years, we’d talked about what a great location it was. It’s perfect. It’s right there.”
Located at 1843 Dandridge Avenue, the property lies near the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, the Alex Haley facility, and the Mabry-Hazen House. The structure itself isn’t much to look at, but Parris-Bailey felt certain that they could turn its expanses into a suitable facility. “The bottom line is, the structure was there, and we had been looking for ways to participate in the community development process.”
Currently, Carpetbag works out of a suite in the Emporium, where Parris-Bailey is seated during this interview. It’s light and airy in the just-below-ground-level space, the windows occasionally framing the legs of a passer-by walking along Jackson Avenue. But the fact that it’s a borrowed address is never far from Parris-Bailey’s mind.
“In 37 years, Carpetbag has never had its own facility,” she says. “This is our space, but it’s an umbrella address. Unless you know we’re here, you’re not going to find us. It’s important at this juncture that we establish a positive identity and that we establish some location that people can associate with what we do.”
In the four weeks between when the issue of conflict of interest was raised and the City Council meeting at which the vote would be revisited, Parris-Bailey met with most of the councilmen and councilwomen personally to explain the digital storytelling project in greater detail and invite them to express their questions and concerns. From what she gathered, the issue could be resolved if the taxes were paid and the property was essentially donated to Carpetbag. Parris-Bailey says, “Emanuel and I deeded the property over to Carpetbag for $1. We owed the taxes, we were going to pay the taxes, and it had nothing to do with the sale of the property.”
But apparently, it was too late. “I received a call, and I was told that basically there was a lot of pressure being put on the [Community Development] office, there were things that were happening that didn’t really have anything to do with us, that the office was going to withdraw the proposal. So it never actually came back before Council,” she explains. Roddy confirms that she received a phone call from the Law Department that a decision had been made that the project would not move forward.
Morris Kizer of the Law Department says he was passing the message on to Roddy from the Community and Neighborhood Department. “It wasn’t based on anything as far as legality was concerned,” he says.
Parris-Bailey says she still hasn’t been told what happened. She mutters something about politics, and closes her eyes. When they reopen, they’re filled with tears.
Councilman Woodhull explains, “I think that sometimes suspicion reigns around here, and we see what we’re looking for, not what is necessarily there. And I think that’s what happened here. I think we were looking for something suspicious, and we created it.”
The proposal, at least as it stood, is now water under the bridge. Parris-Bailey accepts the reality that “the funding is not going to come back to us—the project has been pretty much shot from that perspective,” but says she is ready to move on. “If the only way to resolve the controversy is to select another location, then we’ll do what we have to do. We’re committed to the project, because we believe in it,” she says. “We want to look at who is interested and willing to partner with us and get this project done. It’s an open invitation.”
As for the theater troupe’s reputation, tarnished by a combination of bad publicity and political entanglements, Parris-Bailey says she is more interested in the bigger picture. “We have 37 years invested in this community, and our goal is to be here for the next 37 years.”
Woodhull notes that, while “it’s always sad when your own hometown beats you up a little bit,” Carpetbag’s reputation extends far beyond the bounds of East Tennessee. “Internationally, they will always be recognized as frontrunners for the work they do…. This situation may interfere some in the short-term here locally, but in the long-term it won’t. People who know Linda know she runs a very tight ship. [Carpetbag] is a great organization and an incredible community asset. It’s like a bowtie in our wardrobe.”
Parris-Bailey agrees. “At this point, we’re ready to move forward,” pointing out Carpetbag’s upcoming production of Southern Sankofa: Flying Home at the Emporium Sept. 8-9. “I won’t say we lost the fight. We just lost the funding.”
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