Our view: Still free, still driving tax receipts

If there is a perennial part of Steamboat Springs’ summer scene that is more beloved by a broader swath of both the local community and our visitors than the Free Summer Concert Series at Howelsen Hill, it’s difficult to imagine what it might be.

And that’s why we’re mystified by the news last week that City Council had approved an $8,000 cut in its community support funding for the concert series down from the $23,000 they received in 2014. A majority of council members agreed that the cuts, recommended by the arts and culture coalition, were disappointing. However, the majority also rejected a last-minute plan by council member Kenny Reisman to find another $8,000 elsewhere in the city’s discretionary budgets to restore the funding for the concert series.

We think Reisman had it right.

Instead of cutting eight grand from the concert series’ budget, we think the city should be investing more to help the series realize its true potential as a tourism driver. We think City Council should begin by waiving most, if not all, of the $9,300 in fees they charged the concert series last summer.

We confirmed with Summer Concert Series board president Coleman Cook this week that the $9,300 includes the $1,000 the series pays annually for use of Howelsen Hill Park and Lodge, another $200 each summer for electrical hookups, $3,600 to cover the overtime wages of two police officers for the summer’s concert calendar and $3,600 in city sales taxes the nonprofit remits to the city for beer sales.

The city also provides robust staffing through its courtesy patrol.

Cook said the concert series is allowed to choose one concert each summer at which it doesn’t have to remit city sales tax on the beer sales, which represent a major portion of the annual budget of about $240,000. If the city can waive its sales taxes on beer for one concert, surely it can waive it for five concerts. We would submit that, that would be an investment in larger lodging as well as general sales tax receipts.

Everyone understands that the city depends on sales tax to fund its operations. And we only have to look at Telluride, where summer sales tax collections exceed winter collections, to understand the impact a summer schedule packed with music festivals has on town revenue.

So, why isn’t the city doing more to boost the Steamboat summer concert series? One understandable reason could be that it’s difficult to gather tourism data from a free concert series. It’s difficult to ascertain the mix of locals and tourists at a given concert. But anyone who attended the Big Head Todd and the Monsters concert last summer could glance around the packed venue at Howelsen Hill and see hundreds and hundreds of people who were not locals.

The philosophy of Cook and vice-chair Scott Fox, since they came onto the board about five years ago, has been to build up the entertainment budget to $100,000 annually. That’s a magic number that would allow them to pack the summer concert schedule with big-name acts like Big Head Todd, which have the ability to entice an affluent crowd from the Front Range to make the drive to the Yampa Valley for a three- or four-day weekend.

The talent budget for this summer is $70,000, so we’ll see a mix of one or two expensive bands, perhaps a couple in the middle or a couple more affordable bands. Some will drive tourism — others likely will add to the enjoyment of people who were coming here anyway. And that’s why we think City Council should jump in with both feet.

We should say that while Cook protested his all-volunteer not-for-profit’s cuts before Council last week, he also told Steamboat Today that he respects a dilemma faced by council members.

Cook understands that City Council has turned community support funding over to experts in each of several fields, from human resources to arts and cultural events and more, to make their recommendations, rather than council members struggling to weigh each of the funding requests. This year, Council approved divvying up more than $388,000 among 39 local nonprofits based on the recommendations of the various coalitions. It’s a big job, and we know it.

Cook said that his board wants to honor the work done by members of the arts and culture coalition, it just disputes their rationale for recommending that the budget for the Free Summer Concert Series be cut. Similarly, we aren’t urging City Council to blow up the coalition system it has in place to sort through the difficult community support funding process. Rather, we think the concert series belongs in a different category — that of a special event series that truly drives tourism and the sales tax revenues that fund city services.

The Free Summer Concert Series has built its brand on free shows, and although the subject of charging a modest admission fee is tossed around every year, Cook said, they can’t bring themselves to stop “Keepin’ it Free.” We’re tempted to urge the board to start charging a buck per concert to solve its funding challenge.

However, since they aren’t prepared to take that step, we urge concert goers to seek out the donation box staffed by volunteers from the Young Professionals Network at each show and put their money where their joy is.

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