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LIGHTNING EDITORIAL: Raise tourism tax for Playhouse

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners, the county's tourism arm and the Hendersonville City Council should endorse a proposal to direct hotel tax money to support the Flat Rock Playhouse.

The proposal to raise the hotel tax to 6 cents from 5 comes amid the annual scramble for limited local grant money for a variety of non-profits and special interests. The Playhouse is a special interest, in the positive sense of the phrase, if such a sense can still be salvaged.
For longtime patrons and supporters, the idea of subsidizing Playhouse operations is a new one. The Playhouse throughout its 60-year history has stood almost alone among regional professional theaters in the percentage of operating revenue generated by ticket sales. When founding director Robroy Farqhuhar walked up and down Main Street hawking tickets in 1950s and '60s, it was not just to get some fresh air and greet friends. He was making payroll.
The Playhouse has always sustained its operations through ticket sales, with very little coming from either donations or government grants. Show sponsorships in the past four years of economic slowdown have dropped substantially.
The Playhouse received $100,000 last year from the city and $25,000 from the Village of Flat Rock and is seeking the same grants this year. State Sen. Tom Apodaca said he would support the hotel tax increase and spearhead the legislation if the Board of Commissioners and City Council endorse it first. A penny raises about $220,000.
The argument for the Travel and Tourism participation is a strong one. The Playhouse receives just $5,000 a year from T&T, despite its value in luring 30,000 out-of-town patrons to its seats — and to restaurant tables, shops and hotels. The theater employs 28 fulltime and more than 200 part-time employees annually and has a payroll of just under $2 million. The Playhouse drew 96,000 patrons in 2011 and, powered by the first full season of performances downtown, projects the sale of 100,000 seats this year.
Commissioner Larry Young said he doubted the Playhouse's economic impact of $10 million, to which the Playhouse produced a study, first compiled in 2003 and updated twice since then, showing the facts behind the assertion. Young made the bizarre assertion that he opposed using hotel tax to support the Playhouse because it's "a private entity."
First, it's not. It's a non-profit organization. But more important, what if it were? The whole point of Travel & Tourism, we assumed, was to boost private enterprise that attracts visitors because those visitors help other businesses.
If Young's standard for government money excludes private companies, then why did he vote to write a $1.65 million check to Sierra Nevada? That was the right decision, we would agree, because of the brewery's enormous positive impact on the economy.
The Playhouse is here now, already having a positive impact. To continue to put on the kind of shows patrons expect and continue to drive tourism, it is asking for a share of the hotel tax. Local leaders should say yes to the request, which is a sound investment in tourism and economic development.