Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Diradour vs. Samuels: About Arts and Entertainment

One of the liveliest contests in local politics this fall is playing out in Richmond’s Second District councilmanic race. The district includes most of the Fan District, all of Scott’s Addition, some near-in aspects of Northside and most of the artsy blocks of the official Arts and Cultural District.

The incumbent is Charles Samuels, 36, an attorney. The challenger is Charlie Diradour, 48, a real estate developer/landlord.

Both men are members of the Democratic Party. Both have been active in the Fan District Association. Both have had a lot to say about Richmond’s arts and entertainment scene. Both have raised enough money to conduct serious campaigns, no one should be surprised if the race stays close all the way.

In August, via telephone and email, the two busy candidates agreed to answer questions about local government’s interaction with arts and entertainment.

Question: Are you happy or unhappy with the City of Richmond’s current laws that seek to control noise emanating from entertainment venues, restaurants, happenings at art galleries, etc.? Please explain what you plan to do about this issue, if anything, should you be elected.

Diradour: The noise ordinance is a great concept. The ordinance, however was poorly written. In fact the first ordinance as passed by Council was deemed unconstitutional. For a city as alive as RVA, we need to consider that noise is part of life in an active social community.

If I am elected, I will bring business owners, residents, The Richmond Police Department, and attorneys together to craft a new ordinance that better reflects the needs of our community. Noise pollution is one thing, but stifling arts and entertainment is quite another.

Samuels: As the member of Council who drafted and introduced the measure to limit noise, I feel it is about the best that we could do in terms of balancing the quality of life rights of all parties, specifically the right to have fun and the right to the peaceful enjoyment of your home.

Noise emanating from commercial and business establishments are not governed by the current noise ordinance (unless they are heard inside multi-unit dwellings or on residential single unit dwellings). However, there have been zoning laws on the books for decades that regulate noise from businesses in some zones. As we learned during the drafting process of the current sound control ordinance, there are always ways to improve ordinances like this, but I’m proud that community leaders, stakeholders and residents came together to make it work in the end. I am certainly open to tweaking it if it can be improved.

Analysis: Diradour seems to get it when he says “noise is part of life” in the city. How he might get “business owners, residents,” etc., to all agree on where to draw the line on what’s acceptable in the way of noise is another matter. No doubt, Samuels was trying to do something along those lines, but then it got complicated…

There are many quiet neighborhoods in Richmond. Others less so. Most Fan District residents, who’ve lived with its shops, offices, schools, busy sidewalks and streets, and its bars, have grown accustomed to what noise routinely exists in their neighborhood. Trying to make the Fan or the Arts and Cultural District as quiet as Windsor Farms won’t improve Richmond.

Noise has to be judged in context. A city cop ought to be able to determine whether an offensive noise constitutes disorderly conduct within the moment’s context. A noise patrol searching for bad decibels isn’t going to make Richmond a better city, either.

Question: Are you in favor of abolishing Richmond’s seven percent admissions tax? If “yes,” what is wrong with the tax? If, “no,” why should it remain on the books? If elected, what, if anything, do you plan to do about this issue next year?

Diradour: The 7% admissions tax is punitive in it's nature, in that it keeps small businesses from opening and, in fact, may indeed be a reason for some to have closed. Often, one hears the argument that the tax is borne by those who come from outside RVA's boundaries and is therefore a tax that doesn't effect city dwellers. I would make the argument, that lost revenue due to what amounts to a doubling down of the gross receipts tax is weighing down our arts and entertainment communities. I would vote to abolish it.

Samuels: Yes, but local government revenues are down substantially due to significant cutbacks in state funding and declining real estate revenues. I am not convinced we can afford to cut one source of revenues without replacing those dollars from another source. The admissions tax is much like the City’s meals tax. Only customers of entertainment venues pay it. Yes, it adds to the total cost of the experience, but it is not paid by the host or promoter, it is part of the ticket cost paid by guests. Interestingly, the City may provide a lower rate for non-government owned civic centers, stadiums or amphitheaters, but there is no authority regarding movie theaters, theaters or other venues. I am also considering returning to the General Assembly to lobby to address this issue.

How much does it actually account for? The admissions tax city wide accounts for .4% of tax revenue for 16 cities. Richmond is below the median and collects approximately 1.2 – 2 million from this tax. The median admissions tax rate for cities in Virginia is 7.5% with a maximum of 10% in 7 of those cities.

Analysis: Diradour says he will vote to abolish the admissions tax. Yet, while he seems to know it should go, it’s less clear by his answer why he thinks so.

When Samuels says the admissions tax is “much like the meals tax,” he reveals a lack of understanding of how those two very different taxes work. As it actually plays out, in effect, the hosts and promoters do pay the tax.

The public is mostly unaware that an admissions tax has been included in the price of a ticket. With the meals tax the customers can see the tax on their checks, it isn’t built into the price listed on the menu.

Taxes on meals are collected in all jurisdictions, the percentage varies. Samuels doesn’t mention that the surrounding counties, Chesterfield and Henrico, don’t have an admissions tax, which puts their theaters at a marked advantage over theaters in the city.

If a theater in Henrico and one in Richmond take in the same amount on a day’s gross receipts at the box office -- where the ticket price was the same -- the venue in the city yields seven percent less to its owner and the movie’s distributor.

Charlottesville doesn’t have such an admissions tax, either. Which is a significant reason why that particular city’s live music scene is thriving.

Note: In conversations prior to receiving this set of questions, Diradour seemed much more interested in finding a way to get rid of the admissions tax than did Samuels. The incumbent was less impressed with the notion that doing away with that one tax would spawn new streams of revenue for the City, to more than make up for what is now being collected on ticket sales.

Question: Beyond what’s already been covered, what do you think City Hall ought to do to help those who work in Richmond’s entertainment industry to make a better living? And, what measures can the next council take to encourage more privately-financed show biz venues to open in this city, initiatives that you will support?

Diradour: If anything, The City needs to support artists by creating tax incentivized live/work spaces in The Arts District. The creative class will help bring RVA back. According to Richard Florida, Author of The Rise Of The Creative Class, 40 million Americans create for a living. Creativity is found in the sciences, arts, trades, and a broad spectrum of other financial endeavors. The creative class has an immense impact on cities, as they choose to live and work in an environment that fosters their best opportunity for success.

Samuels: I was active in lobbying the General Assembly to win approval for localities to create more than one Arts & Culture Districts and I wrote the City’s initial Arts & Culture District ordinance. I am pleased that the expanded district that was ultimately approved includes my original boundaries as its core, with increased incentives to encourage private sector initiatives and development.

Aside from reducing City government waste, I want to focus on ways the City can encourage job creation. We have the ability to create additional Arts & Culture District and to use that a template to create Tourism District(s). I also want to pursue exempting new qualifying businesses from the BPOL taxes in revenue neutral way. That would certainly benefit newcomers to our entertainment industry and all industries. Job creation is key.

But in addition to the Art and Culture ordinance I drafted, I also wrote and introduced the nightclub licensing paper that was approved by my colleagues last year.

Admittedly, Council got some push-back on this issue, but after a string of violent crimes and deaths near clubs in our City, something had to be done. The deaths of young people that just went out to have a good time is not an appealing part of a nightclub area – it actually discourages many from going there. I’m not opposed to nightlife. I’m trying to stop night death.

And this ordinance has worked. Violent crime is down around these previously dangerous areas in the Bottom, and I am further convinced that this measure has forced nightclubs to take better responsibility for their patrons as they leave their premises. Having safer streets and better accountability can only further enhance the entertainment industry in Richmond.

Analysis: Both guys see the need for crafting a better noise ordinance, while they may disagree on where to draw the line for too loud.

Samuels seems more interested in having the local government closely monitoring the nightlife scene than does Diradour. One has to wonder whether “nightclub licensing” will really have the long-term positive effect on Richmond’s crime rate that Samuels suggests it has, to date. What such oversight could do to address any of the violence embedded in today’s culture isn’t clear.

Samuels wants to wait for the economy to improve before trying to do away with the admissions tax. But in good times, over the last 40 years, nobody in City Hall has talked much about getting rid of that tax.

Samuels shrugs off what show business insiders say about how more shows of all kinds would come to Richmond without that tax in place. They say Richmond needs to wise up to what cities like Nashville and Austin already know -- admission taxes are bad business, because they stifle the growth of an entertainment scene. Those insiders aren’t saying all taxes are bad, or too high; their complaint is just about one bad tax.

Diradour’s mention of Dr. Richard Florida will please some of the people who have had a direct hand in establishing Richmond’s Arts and Cultural District -- the pioneers/the creative class.

Samuels’ mention of lobbying the General Assembly to help the Arts and Cultural District will be seen in a favorable light by the developers who are investing in the area’s future -- the second wave/the money.

To be located at Belvidere and Broad Sts., VCU’s new Institute for Contemporary Art will surely have a positive ripple effect on the surrounding neighborhood, especially the Arts and Cultural District to the east. Adding to what’s already going on in that area, the new galleries, shops, theaters and restaurants currently in various planning stages will eventually open to bring more tourists into the middle of the city.

Now City Hall is on the arts and entertainment bandwagon and next year either Diradour or Samuels will be trying to speak on behalf of the best hopes for the Arts and Cultural District’s future.

The winner of their contest will have a lot to say about whether the new bandwagon stays on the road to brighter days for Downtown Richmond, or it breaks an axle on a familiar pothole.

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Scott said...

I am disappointed that you did not ask about reforming the City's water rates. That story is not gong to go away, and may eventually reveal a lot more about the whole region.

If citizens want to pay attention to the City's budget, they will eventually have to ask about the very real costs of Center Stage and other economic development schemes that have not had anywhere close to their promised return on investment.

I will also say that I very much appreciate Samuels bravely putting forward the noise ordinance. It was sorely needed, and while it may still need some reform, it has been very much welcomed by residents.

Many of our inner city neighborhoods have been overrun with VCU students. The fact is that they tend to be noisier than other residents and are driving homeowners and families out of these neighborhoods.

Paul Hammond said...

I can't believe I actually found something to agree on with Scott. Woo hoo for the noise ordinance. Woo hoo for Charles Samuels.