The county should not buy Rock Crusher Canyon, and the fact that Commissioner Holly Davis is pushing for the county to enter a bidding war with a private buyer who is already far along in the process of closing on a deal doesn’t pass the “say it outloud” test of Republican ideology.
Commissioner Davis shouldn’t be discouraged, though, creative thinking is encouraged on the Board of County Commission. In fact, many arguments against her proposal are going to be just as disingenuous to both conservative principles and the practice of local governing as her proposed plan.
Today’s column examines two of these arguments while using one example, the St. Augustine Amphitheater, as a case study for why this is a bad idea.
Likely the most common criticism that will arise from this is that owning and operating entertainment venues is not the role of government. This makes sense on the surface and may seem hard to argue in principle, but is rarely the case in practice.
Almost all governments, including Citrus County, own several event venues including fairgrounds, auditoriums and community centers. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking the position that the role of government doesn’t include public parks, and since most parks have at least an aspect of event potential, the stance shouldn’t be a question of whether or not government should be involved in event venues.
A more appropriate frame for the argument would be defining the criteria a venue needs to meet to be disqualified from government management. This leads to the second version of an argument for or against this project that people will most likely use.
“Government should be run like a business,” a popular refrain arises. The Chronicle story that first broke this news included quotes Davis as saying, “it would be a huge economic driver if handled correctly” implying that a business-minded approach is necessarily to make it a viable option. There are two problems with this.
The first is that running government like a business does not necessarily mean government-owned entities can or should be profitable. Rather, these entities should have a return on investment, often intangibly, to the tax dollars put in.
Public education raises our youth’s quality of life, reduces community crime rates and frees parents of economic and time burdens of teaching their own children a wide array of subjects in which the parents themselves are not experts allowing these parents to contribute more productivity to the overall economy.
There is an understanding that the schools won’t be profitable, but that the ROI they produce because of these things is worth the tax money.
These benefits are much harder to justify in event venues. The natural argument would be that they attract tourism which benefits local businesses, but that leaves a head scratching fact that this is proposed by a commissioner from the east side of the county that is least likely to see these benefits while Commissioner Jeff Kinnard, whose district Rock Crusher Canyon is in, and Commissioner Ron Kitchen, who chairs the Tourism Development Council, are silent on the issue.
Proponents of the BOCC purchasing Rock Crusher are undoubtedly going to point to the St. Augustine Amphitheater, known as the Amp and owned by St. John’s County, as a success story. The problem is there’s no fiscal evidence to suggest this case study will support their point.
In the first half of 2019, the Amp was named the no. 3 concert venue in the nation and no. 4 in the world based on volume of ticket sales. The venue has a 4,700 capacity (Rock Crusher holds roughly 1,400 people) and in the first six months of that pre-pandemic year had sold 74,300 tickets accounting for $3.4 million in revenue. This doesn’t mean profit however.
In the midst of this flourishing stretch, the now-general manager of the venue was quoted saying the venue doesn’t chase profit or loss. The GM reiterated a year later that turning a profit was not considered when operating the Amp.
This comes five years after the TDC of St. John’s County said the county operating the Amp was like “pouring money down a hole and you never get ahead of it.” Even the most optimistic of supporters asked how long public support would need to keep underwriting it. This is not a success story but rather a cautionary tale.
Commissioner Davis should be applauded for creative thinking, but this is not a good idea to pursue.