In the pursuit of riches, many gamble more than they can afford to lose – a fool’s errand in a business where the house always wins.
It’s a good thought to keep in mind as the Georgia General Assembly once again considers a state constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling; legislators need to know that the “house” has advantages that extend beyond the gaming floor in ways that could harm assets important to their communities.
The casino resorts envisioned for Georgia promise world-class destinations that offer many events and amenities that have nothing to do with gambling. Sounds harmless, perhaps even desirable, until you consider how casino resort practices can affect existing – and often long-standing — arts and culture venues throughout the state of Georgia.
Our state’s arts and culture venues compete in the free market every day for top talent and exhibits that will keep patrons coming through the doors. These businesses and nonprofits aren’t scared of competition, but they do cast a leery eye on casino resorts that construct performing arts facilities with the capacity to seat thousands.
Rather than facing off on a level playing field, casinos are able to box out existing venues by paying far above market rates for top acts. They use these events as loss leaders to bring in customers – and then make their profits on gambling. Adding to the problem, casinos can demand exclusivity agreements in return for their big payouts, preventing acts from performing shows within a certain radius of the casino.
If this were international trade, we’d consider these tactics an unfair trade practice. Selling tickets for below cost distorts the market. While it seems like a great deal for the consumer in the short run, it eventually kills off the competition that benefits ticket buyers with more choices and good pricing.
But we stand to lose much more than that. If unfair competition forces arts and culture facilities out of business, we’re not just trading one location of bricks and mortar for another.
The Fox Theatre, where I am CEO, is an icon for Atlanta. It’s so much a part of the city’s history that locals rallied to save it in the 1970s when it faced demolition for redevelopment. Patrons from near and far – more than 600,000 in the past year – come to Peachtree Street to see their favorite shows in a unique and beautiful setting. The Fox Theatre does not survive today primarily on ticket revenue – in fact, the majority of this revenue goes to the acts that play our stage. The Fox Theatre survives on earned income from concessions sales, sponsorship and other ancillary revenue. Strong attendance numbers are a must.
In addition to the approximately $3 million in sales tax the Fox Theatre will pay this year, its customers will probably eat at a restaurant, grab a drink at a local watering hole and pay for parking spots that would sit empty after office hours.
The Fox is not alone. Arts and culture venues bring significant economic impact that is dispersed across the state.
Many enrich the community in others way too. The Woodruff Arts Center, for example, spends $7 million a year to serve 200,000 students and hundreds of teachers. It also owns the Verizon Amphitheatre, whose revenues allow the city to have a symphony orchestra. The Fox Theatre, through the Fox Theatre Institute, supports other historic theaters throughout the state with preservation grants, consultation and education.
The Georgia Arts and Culture Venues Coalition also includes facilities owned by local governments, meaning in some cases taxpayers are on the hook.
Let me be clear, the coalition is not taking a stand for or against gaming. However, we are taking a stand against casino resorts that include entertainment venues funded by gaming receipts. Georgia voters may say yes to gaming; however, they are not giving permission to casino operators to destroy taxpayer-funded civic assets and the state’s fragile arts and culture infrastructure. Georgia should not allow an out-of-state regulated business to harm the arts and culture industry that has taken generations to build.
Atlanta and the state of Georgia have already shown their support for its arts and culture treasures. Together we have “Saved the Fox” once; let’s not put it at risk again.
Allan Vella is president and CEO of the Fox Theatre.