Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Imagine a city known for its entertainment and hospitality

Let it be remembered that the good people who are now part of a new grass roots movement devoted to bettering the City of Richmond met for the first time at the Greater Richmond Convention Center on July 7, 2009.

For about an hour 15 people sat around a table on the second floor of the convention center and discussed Richmond’s admissions tax.

Some of those who were there seemed all too familiar with how the City’s seven percent tax on tickets has been holding Richmond back. Others appeared to suddenly envision the positive effects that removing the decades-old tax would have on Richmond’s cultural landscape and economy.

By the way, no one should confuse this effort with what the anti-tax Tea Party folks have been up to. This local movement is targeted. It’s not a matter of loathing all taxes, or trying to starve the government beast.

This ad hoc committee, with no name for itself at this point, wants to study how best to remove a particular tax that its members see as a vexation to those in the entertainment industry and an obstacle to Richmond’s economic well being.

Currently, a seven percent tax comes off the top of the price of every ticket sold to any event in Richmond. This puts venues within the city limits at a disadvantage when competing with venues in Charlottesville, for instance. C-ville, with its thriving live music scene doesn’t have such a tax.

The July 7 get-together was hosted by the convention center’s manager, Mike Meyers. Doug Conner, 9th District representative on city council, ran the informal meeting. Johnny Cates, the executive director of the Greater Richmond New Car Dealer Association, was the man who first called for the confab to take place.

“The purpose of the meeting was to get a feel for the scope of the issue relating to the hardships that the admissions tax place on our business community,” said Conner.

Tony Pelling is a member of the Byrd Theatre Foundation, the non-profit that owns and operates the 80-year-old movie palace; he was its first president. Pelling said, “The Byrd at present pays some $17,000 a year in admissions tax on its two dollars-a-time tickets. So, to cover that cost, 8,500 extra patrons would have to be attracted each year — a tough call. Over 10 years at today prices some $170,000 could have been available to say replace many of those seats.”

Cates said, “If the City of Richmond wants to keep the Virginia International Auto Show downtown, they will have to become more competitive. The admission tax is a big part of it, as the surrounding counties do not charge it.”

Conner added, “I became involved as a result of the City charging tax on complimentary tickets that [the promoters] gave away at their car show this past spring; Johnny Cates is a friend of mine, as well as a business associate.”

John Bryan, president of the Arts Council (soon to be known as CultureWorks), assured everyone there is already plenty of support for doing away with the admissions tax within the local arts community.

Cates also spoke of Richmond, itself, needing to strive to become widely known for the quality of its genuine hospitality. “The No. 1 objective of the City should be to welcome and bring people gladly to downtown, to restaurants and clubs.”

What the general public usually doesn’t understand is the problem with the tax is not so much a matter of ticket purchasers objecting to paying the tax. No, it’s more a matter of promoters of live entertainment acts on tour, or consumer shows (cars, boats, etc), or film distributors not wanting to do business in Richmond at all.

In recent years, the City has taken in an average of $1.3 million a year from admissions tax collections. At this writing, it’s not known what Richmond spends chasing after its take of every big ticket and cover charge at the smallest of shows.

Pelling said, “Outside promoters, when told the seven percent tax is going to be a first unavoidable charge, many throw up their hands and go elsewhere.”

My old friend Chuck Wrenn was at the table, too. We worked together at the Biograph Theatre at 814 W. Grace St. when it opened in 1972. That was the time we became aware of the admissions tax. Wrenn told the group about the hobbling effect the tax had on the Moondance Saloon, a legendary restaurant/club he owned in the 1990s. And, he explained how the tax keeps so many large shows from ever coming to Richmond.

Seven percent off the top of a $1 million gross from a Bruce Springsteen live show is $70,000.

After the meeting Chuck and I reminisced a bit and talked about what went on at the meeting. Several times he said, “I can’t believe this is finally happening!”

Well, it’s happening too late to save the Moondance and a long list of venues.

Someday, hopefully sooner than later, Richmond’s government officials will come to grasp that moving beyond outmoded thinking will unshackle this city’s artists, entertainers and impresarios to create more cultural options and economic vigor for one and all. Yes, that means jobs!

That’ll be the day Richmond starts to earn a new reputation as an entertainment-friendly kind of town — as a big-hearted city, known for its boundless hospitality.

Since the first meeting more people have joined the group, which will meet again after Labor Day.

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