Thursday, June 21, 2012

Richmond's show biz-stifling tax

Commentary by F.T Rea
(This piece was originally published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch 
on June 19, 2011)

Over the past 10 years, how many cool nightclubs and edgy theaters didn't open in Richmond? How many popular touring shows skipped Virginia's capital city, chiefly because the risk-and-reward ratio — the chance to make a profit — was better somewhere else?

Since it's hard to prove what might have happened, any numbers offered here would just be guesses. However, Richmond's 7 percent admissions tax is surely the villain in this story about lost opportunities.

How this tax works to hobble show business is something few Richmonders understand. (By the way, this is not a tax issue that cuts along ideological fault lines, so there's no need to look for that aspect of it.)

In a nutshell, smart operators know Richmond is not an entertainment-industry-friendly town.

Noise ordinances and efforts to prevent dancing aside, at the top of the list of reasons the part of downtown around the convention center isn't already dotted with live stages — and doesn't already have a thriving live music scene — is the admissions tax. The few venues that are open are getting by in spite of City Hall's anti-show biz attitude.


Richmond's admissions tax comes off the top of the gross for every event that has a ticket price of 50 cents or more. That means live music, movies, ball games, lectures and so on.

By the way, Chesterfield County and Henrico County don't have an admissions tax. Which means it's usually smarter for a movie distributor to ship a print of its feature film to a cinema in the suburbs.

Here's the reason why: Exhibitors and distributors usually agree to split what revenue comes in at the box office. The percentages can vary greatly, depending on the situation.

Let's say the distributor of "Blood Feast VII" agrees to a 50/50 deal with two area theaters. The Blue Cinema in Henrico County and the Orange Theater in Richmond will open the picture on the same Friday; both exhibitors will pay the movie's distributor 50 percent of the box-office take.

Unfortunately, "Blood Feast VII" flops; it plays in this market just one week. Both cinemas take in the same amount of money — just $2,000 each. The distributor will get a check for $1,000 from the Blue and a check for $930 from the Orange, which had to send the city $140.

Of course, the Orange Theater will also have to pay all the other ordinary taxes and fees that businesses in Richmond must pay. Even a nonprofit like the struggling Byrd Theatre in Carytown has to cough up the 7 percent admissions tax.


The same problem plays out with live shows, too. If you want to rent 15 music halls for a Bruce Springsteen tour of the East Coast, you will consider several factors in choosing the best situations. In this region, one will stand out: If you rent a Charlottesville music hall, zero in admissions tax will come out of the gross.

Seven percent off the top of a $1 million gross from a live Springsteen show is $70,000 — a number hard to ignore.

The problem with the admissions tax is not so much that consumers object to paying it. It's that promoters don't want to bring their shows here. And, for a small club, having to pay 7 percent of what comes in at the door, when the band of local musicians usually gets that money, takes a nasty bite out of profits.

Consequently, there are fewer clubs and fewer gigs. Fewer gigs mean more area musicians have to keep a day job, or they just leave town.

Richmond takes in about $1.4 million a year in admissions taxes. Yet, if you ask how much it costs to collect that money, curiously, no one who works for the city seems to know the answer.

The admissions tax in Richmond is not unique. Unlike, Charlottesville, most cities in Virginia do have such a tax; the rate varies.


In April of this year, a delegation of Richmond's leaders visited Austin, Texas — the so-called Live Music Capital of the World — to study what that city might be doing right. Among other things, the visitors learned that cultivating a live music scene is good for business.

With no admissions tax in the way, Austin encouraged a world-class live music scene to develop. Its best musicians don't have to leave town to make a living.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, our government officials are wishing they could charge a 7 percent admissions tax on a hot show that didn't come here. They're dreaming of taxing trendy venues that don't exist.

Perhaps some are even wondering about jobs that didn't come here, because yet another company chose a city more friendly to its creative class for its new headquarters.


Note: My latest post on this topic is here at SLANTblog.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Richmond’s Bloody Interregnum

Commentary by F.T. Rea

A ballot box was stolen from this Jackson Ward building
142 years ago. Now it houses Gallery 5.

When I hear stubborn politicians talking about absolutely refusing to compromise with their opponents, it brings to mind what tragedy can flow from such foolishness. When I hear angry activists talking about “second amendment solutions,” it reminds me of how a supposedly civilized group of people can lose its moorings. In its long history Richmond has had its share of bloody "solutions."

It was less than five years ago that Richmond’s government split into pieces and turned against itself. That happened with the Friday Night Fiasco (Sept. 21, 2007). But, if the reader thinks that strange stunt, engineered by then-Mayor Doug Wilder — to evict local public schools officials from City Hall — was totally unprecedented, in that it had the local government at odds with itself, then please read on.

That little tiff was small potatoes compared to what happened in these parts in 1870-71. Here's a glance at the disastrous outcome of allowing a perpetual feud to take root. It's a scary example of what can happen when people refuse to accept the results of elections or a ruling handed down by a court.

The Bloody Interregnum was the name given to the politics-gone-wrong brouhaha over whether George Chahoon or Henry K. Ellyson was the lawful mayor of Richmond.

When the five-year military occupation of Virginia following the Civil War ended on January 26, 1870, Gov. Gilbert C. Walker promptly appointed a new City Council for Richmond. That body in turn selected Henry K. Ellyson, publisher of The Dispatch — forerunner to today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch — as the city’s mayor.

However, George Chahoon, who had served as mayor during the last two years of Reconstruction, refused to recognize the validity of the process. Although the transplanted New Yorker had a considerable following around town, he was seen by Ellyson’s backers as a lowdown “carpetbagger.” After all, Chahoon had served at the pleasure of the military overlords.

When neither man would give ground, the city itself fractured. As positions solidified, the split became a chasm; the result of which created two separate city governments. There were two police departments, two City Halls, etc. Brawls became commonplace as the supporters of both men sought to press their case on every street corner. Chaos, with gun-play aplenty, ensued.

Notably, in spite of the fact that Richmond served as the capital of the Confederacy during a portion of the Civil War, it was not without its Union sympathizers. In fact, Richmond was quite divided on the topic of secession before the war. During and after the war there were substantial elements present that could have been characterized as pro-Union.

Like the USA’s 2000 presidential election, in 1870 the impasse found its way into court. On April 27, the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals met to hear arguments from the two camps on the third floor of the state Capitol building.

The anxious citizens shouldered onto the balcony to witness the spectacle. Suddenly it collapsed under all the weight. The balcony and spectators crashed onto the hapless below. Widely known as The Capitol Disaster, when the smoke cleared the tragedy left 62 people dead and 251 injured.

Two days later, the court reconvened at City Hall. In due time, a verdict favorable to Ellyson was returned. A month later, a citywide election took place. But no clear winner emerged from that exercise, either.

This time the contentiousness stemmed from the disappearance of a ballot box from a precinct friendly to Chahoon. Same as ever, both sides traded more accusations. Although Ellyson was certified as the winner by the election board, he declined to serve because the election results were tainted, therefore inconclusive. Thus, the battle raged on.

Eventually Chahoon left town to avoid facing the consequences of several felony indictments — supposedly of a nonpolitical nature — that had been heaped upon him. For his part, Ellyson grew weary of the struggle and withdrew from the race.

It finally ended on July 1, 1871, with the election of Anthony Keily as the one and only mayor of the exhausted city of Richmond. The actions of those who were most caught up in the 17 months of The Bloody Interregnum left stains that perpetuated grudges in Richmond for generations to come.

As a child growing up in Richmond, I heard adventure tales from my grandfather about this bizarre time. He claimed his salty old Uncle George (who was a sheriff, among other things) told him that most men in Richmond carried guns on the street in those wild days, much like what we’ve seen in western movies.

Formal duels and spontaneous gunfights were not unusual in Richmond in that time. The Bloody Interregnum was set in motion by grudges. Those Richmonders saw only what supported their point. Blinded by prejudices and driven by insatiable desires to win, neither side was willing to recognize any authority with which it disagreed. 

Rather than give ground, to compromise, they were willing to lose everything. They have their counterparts today. 

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Politics of the Centrifuge

Commentary by F.T. Rea

It wasn’t so long ago that we the people still believed in the wisdom that could be found in America’s melting pot. Ideas from all over the world simmered in that gumbo. It was generally understood by voters and politicians, alike, that compromising and consensus-building were integral to the process of governing the United States of America at all levels.

Yet, in recent years, we the chumps have willingly walked away from the notion that finding common ground is useful, or even possible. Somehow we’ve lost our faith in the simple idea that sometimes there’s more to a situation than meets our own eyes. 

Instead, we live in a time of rampant certitude. Of certitude, philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) made a timeless observation:
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.
So, a modern political debate, whether it’s on television or at happy hour, usually amounts to people slinging harsh and practiced talking points back and forth, without either side reacting to what is actually being said.  

Today, instead of politics of the melting pot, we have politics of the centrifuge.

The spin has been pushing our two major political parties steadily toward their edges. The middle ground of a moderate Republican, or Democrat, is frequently portrayed in political commentary as hopelessly sold-out and utterly passionless. Perhaps the biggest irony of the so-called Information Age is that the truth seems to matter to everyday people less and less.

The constant whirl of conflicting political messages seems mostly to inflame our grievances, which distances us from even wanting to foster cooperation. Meanwhile, the truth is being systematically drowned out by relentless slogans and strident blather ... aggressive promos and shrill demands for apologies … seeping disinformation  and bogus apologies … constant accusations and constant denials.

It seems our collective consciousness has stayed locked in crisis mode since 9/11. Whether it was anthrax, or orange alerts, or weapons of mass destruction, or defending torture, or the banking meltdown, or the massive bailouts, or health care reform, or the debt ceiling, it didn't matter. Each episode was presented to the public as if the doomsday machine in director Stanley Kubrick’s satirical masterpiece, “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), would be triggered by making the wrong choice.

Ironically, a change in the political process 40 years ago that was supposed to make the parties more inclusive and responsive to the will of the people has backfired. In the late-1960s and early-1970s both parties embraced the staging of primaries as a better way to nominate candidates, especially presidential candidates. Now we know that primaries have played a significant role in pulling both parties away from the middle. 

Now the Republican Party has adopted a no-compromise stance that once only suited those on the rightwing fringe, beyond the pale. In its endless-loop effort to shift the center further to the right the modern GOP has stripped its gears with purity tests and pledges.

On the other side of the aisle there are plenty of impatient progressives who see the Obama administration as being Republican-Lite, a sell-out, when it comes to traditional liberal positions. Some see the president as being way too cozy with Wall Street. Others just see him as weak and naïve, when he negotiates with Republicans.

Making matters worse, too many Americans routinely choose to filter their exposure reality. Then, via Fox News or MSNBC, they stoke their anger at the fools across the aisle by consuming a news-like product that has been processed to validate their preconceived notions. 

Hopefully, my grandchildren -- Emily (15) and Sam (13) -- will grow up to be smart enough to see through the propaganda-created fogs of wars on women, on drugs, on poverty, on terror, on science, on religion, on job creators, and so forth.

If they are smart enough, maybe Emily and Sam will understand better than the adults running the show today that no matter how much they think they are right, cooperation is essential in a crowded world ... politics of the centrifuge will never produce genuine solutions with any staying power.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Enough of Recall Elections!

Commentary by F.T. Rea

No, I didn’t want Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker (depicted above) to defeat Milwaukee’s Mayor Tom Barrett.

After all, Walker has been a Poster Boy celebrity for the nationwide ambitions of Tea Party Republicans and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), to do as much damage to America’s union movement as possible.

As the political landscape is spread out today, with the unleashing of Super Pac money the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision brought on, if unions become toothless in the scheme of things, it will make for the most tilted playing field, money-wise, geezers like me have ever seen.

Thus, while it may be ruthless, it is entirely understandable why the elephants want to crush the donkey’s resources. What would be next on such a power-consolidation agenda is anybody's guess. 

Money angles are what most of the liberal analysts have seized upon to talk about. Walker's bravery and manly charisma are what the conservatives like to dwell on. But there were other considerations in play in yesterday’s news-making events in Wisconsin.

In the first place, this election was a do-over. Walker defeated Barrett a year-and-a-half ago. So, at least at this desk, there’s some question about whether Barrett was really the best candidate to run against Walker. Which leads me to my next point: What do I know about Wisconsin’s politics?

Moreover, how much do the jabbering experts on the cable news channels know about the history of politics in Wisconsin, far from either coast?

With their overnight analysis, most of them seem to be seeing the 2012 recall elections in Wisconsin through a national prism, as foreshadowing for the Romney vs. Obama showdown. History tells me that approach is frequently a shallow reading of situations in states with their own peculiarities, involving particular personalities.

What I do remember about Wisconsin is that it has been a home to outspoken partisans on both the left and right ... sometimes simultaneously. It’s my understanding the guys who wear those triangular wedge-of-cheese hats drink a lot of brandy and beer up there; I probably heard that in the Texas-Wisconsin Border Café, a favorite long-lost local dive. Hey, in 1966, I spent the better part of a day in Milwaukee. And, I surely did enjoy watching Russell Wilson (Collegiate HS in Richmond) play quarterback for the Badgers last season.

No, I don’t really know much about Wisconsin. Neither do a lot of people.

Yes, yesterday’s thumping of Mayor Barrett was due in great part to his lack of money. On top of that there were the losing candidate’s weaknesses, but I'd like to add that it also had to do with recall elections.

Yes, in spite of all the hoopla about Wisconsin’s impact of national politics, some voters who may happily vote for President Barrack Obama in November didn’t support the Democrats yesterday, maybe because they think recall elections are bad medicine.

Unlike the talking heads on TV are wont to do, I won’t guess at how many.

But I do know that today’s trend that has bad losers refusing to accept the results of elections is a growing problem on both sides of the aisle. The eight years of crying about the stolen presidential election of 2000, on the part of some Democrats, was bad form. Today, the refusal of some Republicans to accept Obama’s well-documented history as legitimate is outrageously tedious. 

My thinking is that if a Governor is convicted of a felony, throw the bum out. Short of that, the voters are stuck with the winner for their entire term. If you want shorter terms, to be safe, or term limits, then fine. But as much as I wanted Walker to lose, and I’m worried about what his victory will mean for unions, I’m still not so sure there should have been a special recall election in Wisconsin, in the first place.

So, if Walker’s victory means there will be fewer recall elections in America's future, well, that will be the silver lining to what was some cloudy bad news.

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 -- Illustration by F.T. Rea

Monday, June 4, 2012

VCU's Goddess of Democracy

Commentary by F.T. Rea

Built by art students, on May 30, 1989, the Goddess of Democracy was erected in Tiananmen Square as a symbol of their call for democratic reforms in China. The gathering protest in Tiananmen Square had begun in mid-April; tension was mounting.

Subsequently, on June 4, 1989, following orders, the People’s Liberation Army put an end to the demonstration. Mayhem ensued.

Although reports varied widely, hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. Made of chicken wire and plaster the Goddess was destroyed during the brutal routing of the protesters that had remained to the end, in defiance. As the drama played out on television, via satellite, the events shocked the world.

As their art student counterparts in China had been murdered in the shadow of their 33-foot-tall sculpture, in Richmond a group of VCU-affiliated artists heard the call of inspiration to stand with those who had fallen. They knew they had to build a replica of the lost Goddess.

The impromptu team of the willing and able worked around the clock for the next couple of days to give form to their tribute to the courage of those who had perished for freedom of expression. While the project was not sponsored by the school, wisely, VCU did nothing to discourage the gesture.

Richmond’s Goddess of Democracy (pictured above and below) stood the same height and was made of the same basic materials as the one in China had been.

Twenty-three years ago, facing Main Street, it stood as a memorial for about a month in front of the student center. CNN had a report on it, as did many other news agencies. Its image was on front pages of newspapers all over the world.

The little placards on sticks that surrounded the sculpture were added a few days after the Goddess was completed. Art-wise, it was one of the coolest things ever to happen in the Fan District and, to my knowledge, nobody made a penny out of it. It was constructed and maintained entirely by volunteers.

It was also a wonderful illustration of how traditional left and right, liberal and conservative, characterizations of all things political don’t always do justice to the truth of a situation. Was the stubborn and heavy-handed Chinese government standing to the right, or to the left, of the upstart students calling for reform?

When communists are the conservatives clinging to the old way, how does that play out on a spectrum of left-to-right thinking?

In 1989 I couldn't believe the university and the City of Richmond were allowing it. There must have been a thousand regulations and liability concerns that went overlooked, because of the righteousness of the undertaking.

The Goddess of Democracy on VCU’s campus in 1989 was the most successful piece of guerilla art this scribbler can remember having seen.

The June 16 -30, 1989 issue of SLANT ran a story about building of the Goddess, which included the text of a handbill that I found posted at the site of the VCU memorial. Here's part of what it said: 
On May 13, 1989, Beijing University students began an occupation of Tiananmen Square to call for democratic reforms and an end to official corruption. The ensuing peaceful and often festive protest drew world attention and gained support from the citizens and workers of Beijing. On Sunday, June 4, at 3:30 [a.m.] Chinese time, troops of the 27th Division of the People’s Liberation Army entered the square with orders to disperse the students. At approximately 6 a.m. these same troops attacked the protestors with automatic weapons, tanks, and bayonets. According to government estimates only 300 students were killed, but local medical estimates put the death toll between 500 and 1,000.
The brutal suppression of unarmed students by a powerful totalitarian government has moved the world’s conscience. Many of the Tiananmen victims were art students who aspired to same basic freedoms which we enjoy daily. As American artists we cannot overlook, and we must never forget, the suffering and sacrifice of our brothers and sisters in Beijing. Their peaceful struggle was a cry for human rights everywhere, and their symbol, the Goddess of Democracy, was the highest artistic tribute they could pay to humanity’s noblest ideal -- freedom.
-- Photos by F.T. Rea