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Sarasota Thursday, Dec. 3, 2009 10 years ago

OUR VIEW: Slap in the face? No, worse


The Sarasota City Commission knows no bounds to dimwittedness.

The latest: $100,000 cash to the Ringling International Arts Festival.

This is lunacy.

Let’s step back: In the good old days of tourism and local economic development, community leaders would devise events in their hometowns that would attract tourists who would stay at hotels, eat at local restaurants, shop at local retail stores and visit local tourist attractions.

The idea was to put on events that would benefit just about every segment of the local economy and not rob any local Peters to benefit outside Pauls.

It all makes sense. And, indeed, this scenario brings to mind the annual Fourth of July boat races in Sarasota, the Gasparilla Pirate Fest in Tampa and, long ago, the annual Festival of Flags in downtown St. Petersburg.

Then, come along two years ago former state Sen. John McKay of Bradenton and retired international dancer Mikhail Barishnykov, namesake for the New York City-based Baryshnikov Arts Center.

At first, it sounded like they had a grand idea: an international performing-arts festival in Sarasota. And why not? We like to think, after all, we’re Florida’s capital of the performing arts.

When local arts supporters initially heard of the idea, they quickly envisioned a week to 10 days of showcasing the performing arts in all of Sarasota’s performing-arts venues with all of the Sarasota-based arts companies performing along with international groups and stars.

What a great boost for the community. Everybody wins.

Now, of course, we know that wasn’t the gig at all.

McKay and the event’s organizers brought in outside performers and all but shunned the Sarasota Orchestra, Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Ballet, Asolo Repertory Theatre and Florida Studio Theater.
When the festival ended, the organizers, of course, gushed at how wonderful this first international festival turned out.

But who won? Sure, there were tourists who came and stayed at hotels, ate at restaurants and shopped.

But there also were many local ticket buyers. And guess what many of them did? The money they spent on tickets to go to the international arts festival was money they would have spent on local performing-arts groups or other local activities. They didn’t increase their arts spending; they just shifted it to benefit outsiders.

Local performing-arts officials won’t say it publicly, but they’ll tell you privately the international festival didn’t do squat for them. In fact, it hurt them.

So now come McKay and the Sarasota City Commission. When McKay asked the Sarasota City Commission for $100,000 for next year’s festival (the first of three stops for local taxpayer money), the Sarasota commissioners gave it to him, no questions asked.

Richard Russell, marketing director for Sarasota Opera, called the move “a slap in the face” to all of Sarasota’s arts organizations. “We’ve been here for 50 years, and we don’t get a penny.”

Slap in the face? It’s worse than that.

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