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Commissioners punt on Playhouse tax

Commissioners Tommy Thompson, Charlie Messer and Larry Young listen to a speaker during discussion of the tourism tax. Commissioners Tommy Thompson, Charlie Messer and Larry Young listen to a speaker during discussion of the tourism tax.

The showdown didn't happen.

After three hours and eight minutes of public comment, discussion, questions and answers, the Henderson County Board of Commissioners came to the decision point on the politically charged Flat Rock Playhouse tax — and kicked the issue down the road.
Amid less emotion and posturing than commissioners and audience members had displayed last month when the board first took up the question, commissioners listened patiently, interjected infrequently and decided in the end that delay beat a decision. They booted the issue to newly created Tourism Development Authority, which will get a chance to weigh in.
The motion that saved the tax from almost certain defeat came from an unexpected figure. Commissioner Larry Young, the most vocal opponent of the 1-cent tourism tax for the theater, said the new commission should look at it.
"Having served on the Travel and Tourism board for the last 10 years, it's very critical that we do not destroy their avenue of revenue to keep them functioning," Young said. "The new authority is probably going to have more expense. I think that money should be kept in the bank, so to speak, for the emergency use of the new Travel and Tourism board. I have misgivings giving the tourism tax to any one entity."
The bill that authorized the Board of Commissioners to raise the tourism tax from 5 to 6 cents also created a new tourism authority, which is more independent of the commissioners than the Travel and Tourism had been.
If the board wanted to kill the tax, it had plenty of support in the audience for that course. Nineteen people spoke and all but two — including Doug Llewelyn, the People's Court star and father of Playhouse development director Lynn Penny — opposed the tax. Among the opponents were the leaders of three different Tea Party chapters in the area — yes, there are that many — and nine people associated with inns, motels or rental cabins.

Under the patient and unfailingly courteous guidance of chairman Tommy Thompson, the meeting unfolded as a long march that left no one wanting for more time to question. Aside from allowing 19 speakers two minutes apiece, Thompson let commissioners talk till they ran out of gas and gave audience members the opportunity to submit written questions.
The increase would raise the total tax on a room night from 11.75 to 12.75 cents, a level that will cause Henderson County to lose tourists to neighboring counties, they said. The innkeepers also said they had heard but did not buy into the Playhouse plan to lead a cooperative effort to attract more out-of-town tourists to Henderson County for overnight stays.
Barbara Lackey, the owner of the Beehive Cottages in Edneyville, said business has declined in the past two or three years because of the economy. She said she supports the spending on Main Street improvements, Jackson Park, baseball fields and the Visitors Center.
"But I don't like raising money to give to one privately owned business," she said. (The Playhouse is a non-profit organization.) "It just blew my mind when you said let's give them 1 percent more of the tax money. That's just not right. Are we taking turns? When will be my turn?"
Tea Party leaders, too, opposed the tax.
"By all objective indications the economy is still on its back," said Glen Englram, chairman of the Blue Ridge Tea Party Patriots. "If you gentleman vote for this tax, you will show that you believe that this government, at least in this instance, is above the people."
Vincent Marini, the producing artistic director of the Playhouse, said the proposal to give the theater a stable base of public funding had been distorted. The Playhouse brings in 60,000 patrons a year from outside the county, he said, and it has tried in the past three seasons to build its appeal.
" For a decade the Playhouse has desperately been trying to get someone in county and state government to look at the real numbers and benchmark us against other tourism entities in the region. We were finally able to accomplish that on a state level thanks to the work of some pretty incredible legislators," he said.
Marini urged the commissioners to look at the "look at the proposal on the merits. We don't believe the public has had an opportunity to do that, because of half-truths."
The Playhouse sells 88 percent more tickets than the average theater in its class, more than $1 million worth, and yet receives only 34 percent of the a mount its peers receive, he said.
"It doesn't matter what your position is on government funding of 501(c)3. It doesn't really matter if you're liberal or conservative. Cities and counties that have an organization like Flat Rock Playhouse must find a way to fund them if they want them to continue to exist in their communities," he said.
"We believe the Playhouse is a priority" for funding because it drives a part of the tourism economy and contributes to the area's culture and education.
"We are not talking about a substantial amount of funding in relation to our budget. In 2013, the Playhouse received about 7.5 percent of its total income from government sources. That means that the other 92.5 percent will come from other funding sources the Playhouse has been able to gather over the years" including season ticket sales, box office sales and donations.
A hotel tax that tourists will pay, not local residents, is the best way to provide a stream of revenue to support the Playhouse and its plan for broader outreach, he said.
"This tax does not have any direct impact on any citizen of this county unless they own or operate a hotel, inn or cabin," he said. "In fact, we believe that ultimately the additional revenue will help make all the businesses that rely on tourism more successful. It's logical to fund a tourism industry with tourism dollars."
Commissioner Mike Edney engaged in a colloquy with Marini in an attempt to rebut some of the charges opponents have made. Edney asked him about the plans to stage shows in Myrtle Beach.
"The Myrtle Beach situation has been completely misrepresented, unfortunately," Marini said.
After the Playhouse sent its Music of the Eagles show to Brookgreen Gardens, south of Myrtle Beach, some investors in North Myrtle Beach asked Playhouse officials whether it might send shows.
"Anytime you can increase revenue from a show, once it's already paid for, makes a lot of sense for any theater, whether it's for profit or non-profit," Marini said.
"The only discussion we've had with Myrtle Beach, we had no money in the deal and we had no control over the venue, and we had no control over anything. All we were being offered was the opportunity for them to pay us a fee to bring a product we had already created down to South Carolina. When I hear people talk about the fact that the Playhouse needs to find creative sources of income to fund its budget, and we are already creating a product, why wouldn't we then give that product an additional life if someone wants to pay us a fee to do that? This idea that we were building a new theater in Myrtle Beach ... was really a misrepresentation."
The controversy and premature discussion of the idea, he said, has probably killed it.
The theater for an unlikely nod of approval, too, from Commissioner Bill O'Connor, who said the organization had made progress in recovering from a $1.3 million loss in 2010.
"It's unfortunate that this has had the effect of polarizing the community in a way that's not healthy," O'Connor said. "The Playhouse has demonstrated to my satisfaction that they made serious efforts, though they may have been late, to accommodate the drop in the recession."
Playhouse leaders were unwise to make investments in the downtown theater and the YouTheatre building in the first years of the recession, he said. The board did not recognize, he said, that, "The people who support playhouses are not as subject to the economy as most people. But be that as it may, they did a good job of reducing a deficit they probably shouldn't have taken on."