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Moss column: The case for Playhouse support

Buses roll in


A few hours after the Village Council ignored the theater's appeal for funding, six buses cruised into Flat Rock and rolled onto the "Great Flat Rock" of Cherokee Indian lore. They disgorged their cargo of passengers, some day-trippers but most from out of town and beyond. Way beyond.
Pam Collins greets a tour bus.Pam Collins greets a tour bus."We flew into Charlotte," said Mark Hoffmann, owner of Sports Leisure Vacations. "We're on a Christmas mystery tour. Folks did not know when we left Sacramento that they were going to North Carolina."
The group drove through the spectacular holiday lights at McAdenville, known as Christmas Town USA, visited Mount Airy (the N.C. foothills inspiration for television's Mayberry) and the Biltmore estate. And they traveled to Flat Rock to see "A Christmas Story."
"We don't do a lot of regional theater because we have regional theater at home," Hoffmann said. "But this is a particularly good regional theater and the quality of the performance is renowned, so it moves it up a little higher on your list."
"What a beautiful downtown you guys have," he added. "That's something that's not easy to come by and that doesn't happen by accident. They enjoyed downtown. Something that's three or four blocks long is perfect." They reboarded the bus toting shopping bags, he said.
Vacation tours are competitive like everything else. To amp up its focus on bus tours, the Playhouse hired Pam Collins, a former Biltmore estate sales person who has contacts nationally.
"Pam had a lot to do with that (decision) because she nags me pretty regularly about coming here," Hoffmann said.
Hoffmann's load of passengers was a living, breathing and spending example of what tourism leaders say they want. It takes a cooperative marketing strategy where hotels and attractions work together to promote the whole county.
"When you talk about economic development, we just dropped $300 at Cracker Barrel," Hoffmann said. "I would say for our one tour group of 25, the economic impact was between $1,200 and $1,500."
Bus tours have become a bigger part of the Playhouse's market strategy.
"We've definitely growing that market," Collins says. "I don't just sell the Playhouse. I sell the whole area because I don't want them to just come here."

$14 million? What $14 million

The Tourism Development Authority should be on the front lines of supporting the Playhouse. Instead, it has been unfriendly territory for the organization.
In December of 2012, at the theater's low point, the authority watered down a resolution in support. Two months ago, the TDA rejected an effort to buy $25,000 worth of theater seats for the "stay and play" program. Finally, when its own study confirmed how many room nights the theater generates, the authority agreed to fund the package for 2014. The TDA chairman said he thinks the county-funded organization should do more.
"For the last couple of months I've tried to get the authority to see the value of what the Playhouse has done for our community as far as bringing folks in," said Shannon Clarke, the marketing director for Mountain Inn & Suites. "I wanted us to be the ones that kind of set the tone for how we're going to spend money. From the survey there's about $14 million worth of income attributed to the Flat Rock Playhouse."
Flat Rock Playhouse staffers Lisa K. Bryant, Vincent Marini and Lynn Penny and board member Robert Danos listen at a recent Village Council meeting.Flat Rock Playhouse staffers Lisa K. Bryant, Vincent Marini and Lynn Penny and board member Robert Danos listen at a recent Village Council meeting.The Playhouse pitched one of its "season sponsorships," which also cost $25,000. The TDA said no.
"Instead of doing a season sponsorship they decided they wanted something in return for it ... to promote those multiple night stays," Clarke said. "I was kind of hoping we'd give it to them with no strings attached that they could use how they wanted to."
Clarke is in hospitality industry himself but seems to be in the minority among the TDA, which has three other members who own or manage hotels or inns. Those board members have been far less supportive of the Playhouse, characterizing it as a drain on public money instead of the contributor to tourism that the new study showed it to be.
"I'm hoping they have a stronger presence inside our Visitor Center as well, and also that we have more materials and a bigger push from our volunteers," Clarke said. "I think there's a lot more we can do to really push ticket sales and help the Playhouse and really go into a partnership with them."
Clarke put it in a way I had not thought of before.
"What we do for the TDA should always be for the tourist," he said. "But the real benefit is for the local community. We get to enjoy a high-caliber theater right here in our back yard because we're bringing all these tourists to see high quality theater. We don't have to drive to Charlotte or Atlanta or even New York because of what we have here."
In other words, the more out-of-town patrons we can attract, the more we ensure the theater's survival for our own benefit.

'Politically touchy'

Jason Ferguson headed the Playhouse PR shop for just nine months, and made great progress in updating and strengthening its social media reach. Three days before Christmas he headed back to New York, where he does the same kind of work. His resignation, he said, was unrelated to the forced furlough he and all other employees took (including administrators, although they didn't leave their desks) or a result of frustration with the precarious financial footing.
I was curious. What did he think of our community's bizarre love-hate relationship with the theater he worked so hard to promote?
"Politically, everything is very touchy and I know everybody has very strong opinions of the Playhouse and how it's funded," he said. "It was kind of a surprise to see how difficult it can be in the community to get them rallying behind the Playhouse. I think the Playhouse has been kind of turned into a political tool at times and I think that's unfortunate."
Ferguson, 33, hoped it would help that the opponents who "say that they're bottom line oriented" can now read an independent study confirming the Playhouse's economic impact.
"I don't think you can deny it," he said. "Whether you want to agree with the $10 million or $14 million figure, you can't deny it. It deserves to get some money."
He's worked at other regional theaters. Do they all have this much trouble getting the support of local politicians?
"It is different" in Henderson County, he said. "In most places there is a lot more financial support in the community. I know I've heard stories that they've always on the brink (from the 1960s on). It's great that it lasted, but it was never going to last forever on that model (relying exclusively on box office revenue). It's not just the Playhouse, it's the industry in general. I would not put my money on a theater lasting long if it continued on that model."

A good investment

Last month, Commissioners could not raise their hand fast enough to order the staff to find a piece of land and build a building for Wingate University. The commissioners were jubilant over the $100,000 a year professor jobs that Wingate president Jerry McGee said the college has brought.
They don't celebrate high salaries out at the Playhouse.
ClarkeClarke MacDonaldClarke MacDonald, the 10-year-old who plays Ralphie in "A Christmas Story," has a stunning salary of zero. That's right. He's doing it for the experience.
Whether it's Chase Brock or Andrew Livingston or Ben Hope or a hundred others, the Playhouse through its YouTheatre and apprentice program has created Vagabonds who have used their training on the Rock to make great art beyond the Rock.
The fact is, the Playhouse contributes to the economy of Flat Rock. It has had a tangible positive impact on Main Street of Hendersonville. It helps to fill hotel beds. It puts us on the map.
If we used a tiny fraction of our public treasury here in Henderson County to help fund the Playhouse in a sustainable way, we would help the local economy, indirectly boost the coffers of dozens of other nonprofits and strengthen one of our greatest assets. To me it seems like a smart investment.


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