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Sarasota Thursday, Jun. 10, 2010 7 years ago

Our View


What a dilemma.

Sarasota City Manager Robert Bartolotta felt pressure shortly after he arrived to “right” the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. That is, figure out how to make the facility’s annual income exceed its expenses, and thus eliminate it, as much as possible, as a drain on taxpayers.

One of those steps included raising parking fees in mid-2008, adding a parking surcharge to ticket purchases. The city also spelled out explicitly in its 2009-2010 budget:

“Rental rates for community partners and for commercial users will be increased for the second consecutive year with an economic focus on the highly sought weekend nights in season.”

As you can see from the accompanying table, the Van Wezel is still forecasted to lose $725,000 this current year. That is down from the $1 million it lost in 2007-2008.

But although Bartolotta’s strategy has been improving the Van Wezel’s results, its effects on local organizations has been painful — especially on the Sarasota Orchestra and Sarasota Ballet, two important arts companies, neither of which has its own concert or performing center.

As reported in this week’s Sarasota Observer, Sarasota Orchestra CEO Joe McKenna and Board Chairwoman Marsha Panuche told city commissioners this week the Van Wezel’s rental fees have risen 94% in the past three years. The orchestra is increasingly uncertain whether it can afford to book the Van Wezel and continue operating.

Van Wezel fees have become so onerous for Sarasota Ballet that it has discontinued using the Van Wezel.
That, too, has created a domino-like dilemma for the ballet: It finds itself relegated to the smaller Asolo
Theatre stage and a limited number of nights in the Sarasota Opera House. Both venues are smaller than the Van Wezel, thus reducing the number of performances, which reduces the ballet’s annual income and increases the amount of money it must raise from donations and contributions.

Suffice it to say ballet and orchestra board members are, to put it mildly, frustrated with the city.

From their perspective, they see their organizations as revenue generators for the city. Snowbirds come to see their productions; they buy real estate; they eat at local restaurants; they go to local doctors. They pay city taxes. And, yet, the ballet and orchestra feel as though City Hall is tightening a noose and slowly suffocating the opportunity for these and other arts institutions to grow, attract more people and become bigger economic engines.

It’s a vexing dilemma.

They both have a point — Bartolotta and the arts organizations feeling squeezed out of the Van Wezel.
Bartolotta rightly believes city taxpayers should not be the sole body subsidizing a hall that people from Manatee and Sarasota counties (and beyond) use. And, in fact, to a greater degree and in a perfect world, the Van Wezel should not require any subsidy at all.

At the same time, because the Van Wezel is taxpayer-owned, there’s an automatic inclination among many arts patrons to believe locally based organizations — including high school graduations and other groups — should be shown some preference over groups and productions from outside the city.

Bartolotta is sympathetic. He told Sarasota Orchestra representatives he is willing to work on options.

It should go further than that. Indeed, the issue is much bigger than that. It’s worthy of a community discussion that involves city leaders, the arts community, business leaders, the Van Wezel Foundation and ordinary taxpayers — a task force to determine answers to important questions:

For whom does the Van Wezel exist? What is its purpose, and how is its purpose prioritized? What are the priorities — operating the Van Wezel profitably … giving preference to local organizations? Can it do both?
Should it be a community venue for such events as public high school graduations? What functions are appropriate? Should Sarasota County or Manatee County taxpayers bear any of the financial burden? Who should own it? Who should manage and operate it? How do other cities operate their halls?

When McKenna and Panuche appeared before the City Commission to broach Van Wezel fees, they touched the tip of the issue, which heretofore city commissioners have mostly ignored. It’s a serious, important issue. And it’s one that requires serious and creative thought, action and leadership. A perfect cue for the person with the title of “mayor.”

FTC: Let’s subsidize journalism
A report suggests taxing websites so the FTC can redistribute the funds to newspapers.

The following editorial appeared in the June 4 Washington Times.

The Federal Trade Commission is seeking ways to “reinvent” journalism, and that’s a cause for concern.

According to a May 24 draft proposal, the agency thinks government should be at the center of a media overhaul.

The bureaucracy sees it as a problem that the Internet has introduced a wealth of information options to consumers, forcing media companies to adapt and experiment to meet changing market needs. FTC’s policy staff fears this new reality.

“There are reasons for concern that experimentation may not produce a robust and sustainable business model for commercial journalism,” the report states. With no faith that the market will work things out for the better, government thinks it must come to the rescue.

The ideas being batted around to save the industry share a common theme: They are designed to empower bureaucrats, not consumers. For instance, one proposal would “allow news organizations to agree jointly on a mechanism to require news aggregators and others to pay for the use of online content, perhaps through the use of copyright licenses.”

In other words, government policy would encourage a tax on websites like the Drudge Report, a must-read source for the news links of the day, so that the agency can redistribute the funds collected to various newspapers. Such a tax would hit other news aggregators, such as Digg, Fark and Reddit, which not only gather links, but provide a forum for a lively and entertaining discussion of the issues raised by the stories.
Fostering a robust public-policy debate, not saving a particular business model, should be the goal of journalism in the first place.

The report also discusses the possibility of offering tax exemptions to news organizations, establishing an
AmeriCorps for reporters and creating a national fund for local news organizations. The money for those benefits would come from a suite of new taxes. A 5% tax on consumer electronic devices such as iPads, Kindles and laptops that let consumers read the news could be used to encourage people to keep reading the dead-tree version of the news. Other taxes might be levied on the radio and television spectrum, advertising and cell phones.

The conflict of interest in having the government pay or contribute to a newsman’s salary could not be more obvious. Reporters and columnists would have little incentive to offer critical analyses of tax increases that might mean a boost in the pocketbook.

Once Congress has the power to fund the news, it can at any time attach “strings” designed to promote certain viewpoints — in the name of fairness, of course. Each year at budget time, the Fourth Estate would scramble to be worthy in the eyes of Capitol Hill for increased support. It is hardly a surprise that the heavily subsidized National Public Radio frequently presents issues in a way favorable to Washington’s tax-and-spend agenda.

Self-respecting journalists must reject this tempting government bribe as the FTC brings its proposals to a roundtable discussion scheduled for June 15. When it comes to the media, consumers lose most when government suppresses innovation in the name of “saving” old business models.

© Copyright 2010
The Washington Times, LLC

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