During the witching hours of the passage of Largo's 2011 budget this fall, Commissioner Curtis Holmes focused discussion on the city's cultural center.
Its finances were too opaque, he lamented.
It operated, and has always operated, at a six-figure loss to taxpayers.
It was a situation, he thought, that shouldn't continue as it was.
"I don't believe in this redistribution of wealth," Holmes said Sept. 22. "If they don't show an improvement in finances … I will go to great lengths to make sure there are no further subsidies."
However, the other five commissioners and Mayor Patricia Gerard disagreed for the most part. The center was a valuable amenity, Gerard argued, and worth its cost to taxpayers — and like most arts venues, was never intended to make money.
But given the vitriol sent to the city in e-mails and letters about decreasing cultural center funding, the 15-year-old center and its advocates were put on the defensive.
It was time, parks officials decided, for a look at the center's standing among peer facilities, a bit of soul searching about its place and purpose.
City commissioners discussed the resulting report at Tuesday night's work session.
For most of Largo's policymakers, it was an affirmation of not only the center's worth, but evidence that it was in fact exceeding its original expectations.
"From the beginning, we were actually looking at about a 50 percent cost recovery," said parks director Joan Byrne, meaning that revenues covered only half the center's operating costs.
In 2010, the center's revenues covered 61 percent of its operating costs. Also in the report, the center, which is home to the Eight O'Clock Theatre company and community events from recitals to weddings, was pitted against arts venues large and small in Pinellas, Polk and Hillsborough counties.
The findings, which may not surprise those familiar with the profitability of the arts, show that of the six venues compared to the cultural center, none operate without taxpayer support — and without tax dollars, none generate positive net revenue.
However, the percentage of self-sufficiency varies.
The Winter Haven Performing Arts Theater, the venue closest in budget and size to Largo's cultural center, is slightly more efficient, self-supporting 69 percent of its operations.
Winter Haven's facility seats 332, and in 2010 had total expenses of $955,981 and required $293,980 in city funds. The cultural center's expenses were $1.01 million in 2010 and required $393,932 in city funds to operate.
The Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, vastly larger, with 2,000 seats, is 74 percent self-supporting — though it is run by a contracted for-profit entity.
The Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center (which serves multiple municipal functions in the small city, such as City Council chambers), with 297 seats in its auditorium, recouped 5 percent of its 2010 operating budget of $1.79 million.
The Francis Wilson Playhouse (not enough data for a self-supporting percentage) and Ruth Eckerd Hall (90 percent self-supporting) in Clearwater and Tampa's Straz Center for the Performing Arts (90 percent self-supporting), all run by nonprofit organizations, each lost money in 2009 — despite various forms of support from their respective municipalities.
One conclusion of the report, presented by Byrne and prepared by management analyst Allison Broihier: "Generally taxpayer support is needed to sustain an arts venue."
Holmes, who was the driving force requesting the analysis, restated his position — that despite the center's original intent to be a low-cost artistic venue for the city, tax dollars shouldn't go to it.
"We had to cut millions last year. We got to cut millions this year. For a $400,000 subsidy, what do you want us to lay off, a half-dozen cops or a bunch of firefighters?" Holmes said. "The whole job of municipal government is public safety. We are not in the entertainment business. … You can have dancing chipmunks for all I care, as long as the taxpayers are not subsidizing the thing."
Gerard interrupted Holmes.
"Commissioner Holmes, that's our decision to make," Gerard said. "Frankly, I think you're in the minority with your opinion."
"I'm sure of that," he responded.
Vice Mayor Robert Murray said he was encouraged by the report's findings.
"What we're really seeing is people going and coming into Largo and spending their money here when they go to the cultural center," Murray said. "As far as I can tell, it looks like it is right on target. I just continue to support it. Based on the numbers, I am even more convinced it is doing what it's supposed to be doing."
Dominick Tao can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 580-2951.