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Big Ticket: Columbus Debates Tax To Support Arts And Arena

Columbus Southern Theatre looking out at the seating area from the stage
Andrew Blight
Flickr Creative Commons

Columbus artists, entrepreneurs and residents gathered in a meeting room at Ohio Dominican University on Tuesday to hear from the Greater Columbus Arts Council. Some clutched paper cups filled with hot coffee, while others pulled out notebooks and pens.

The topic at hand: a proposed ticket tax that has the whole city up in arms.

“We’re here to hear everyone’s perspectives and hear from you,” announced GCAC vice president Jami Goldstein before projecting a PowerPoint presentation.

Under the proposal, tickets for events like concerts, movie showings and professional sports games would be subject to a 7 percent tax. The tax, if passed by Columbus City Council, would help fund local arts as well as maintenance at Nationwide Arena.

But members of the arts community are divided on how much it would actually benefit the city.

Fear Of Declining Arts Funding

At 7 percent, GCAC expects the ticket fee would generate approximately $14 million a year. Nationwide Arena would get 30 percent of the proceeds, and the remaining 70 percent would fund arts in Columbus.

It’s the arts that Goldstein wants to emphasize. GCAC runs the Columbus Arts Festival, and supports organizations like Opera Columbus and the Columbus Museum of Art.

“We need to shore up our anchor institutions, and we need to be able to fund artists programs year-round,” Goldstein said. “Right now we run out of money about halfway through the year.”

Goldstein says the arts are underfunded in Columbus. The new tax would help double grant funding for artist grants.

That tax would apply to admission for cultural events, pro sports and movie tickets at venues like Ohio Stadium, the Schottenstein Center and the Greater Columbus Convention Center. Ohio law forbids GCAC from applying the tax to high school and college sports games – like Ohio State University Football.

“Our arts organizations are on board. Columbus Museum of Art, COSI, Franklin Park Conservatory,” Goldstein said. “They’re ready to stand with us on this, and they’re willing to pay into the fee, too.”

Short North Stage, a regional theatre company on High Street, also supports the arts tax.

“GCAC as a part of the city is our number one supporter and sponsor here in Columbus,” said Tim Valentine, executive director of the Short North Stage. “We would not be able to exist and produce theater and make everyone laugh and have a great time at the theater over the last 8 years if it were not for the help of the city.”

Every institution that would have to charge the tax would not necessarily benefit from it, though.

“As a nonprofit arts organization in Columbus, we are going to benefit from this arts tax,” Valentine said. “And I understand how some organizations that might have to charge the tax are not going to benefit from that tax, but I hope everyone would agree that to support local arts organizations we need something like this."

Goldstein said that GCAC would publish an annual list of how ticket funds are being allocated.

More Money For Nationwide

A group of independent artists and theatre owners don’t like the tax, though, in particular the provisions for Nationwide Arena.

Mike Gonidakis leads Advocates for Responsible Taxation, or A.R.T., says it’s unnecessary.

“This is another Nationwide Arena bailout,” Gonidakis said. “The 7 percent tax will raise about $14 million a year from residents of Columbus and Franklin County, and it’s just more money than is needed.”

Gonadakis calls it “another bailout” because the arena is already receiving public help. In 2012, the city and Franklin County agreed to use a portion of casino tax revenue to buy and operate the arena, but casino tax revenue is far below early estimates.

The Arts Council argues the Arena District would become blighted without the tax. Gonidakis says the tax would put Columbus at a competitive disadvantage and potentially push event organizers – like the Arnold Sports Festival, held at the convention center – to other cities.

“There’s nothing that says The Arnold Classic is in Columbus,” Gonidakis said. “It could be anywhere in the country or the world for that matter. Our hotels are packed for four days, our restaurants are packed for four days because of The Arnold Classic.”

He says Nationwide Arena should not be a part of the conversation.

“If Nationwide needs money, and they might need money, why don’t they charge their largest tenant rent?” Gonidakis says. “The Columbus Blue Jackets pay no rent and they’re the largest tenant that uses that facility more than anyone else.”

Leslie Broecker, president of Midwest Broadway Across America, agrees.

“I would encourage separating the arena,” Broecker said. “It seems very odd and strange to couple the two together and kind of put the arena on the backs of the going public.”

Broecker says a ticket tax will stop the growth of theater in Columbus.

“The longer you perform, like Chicago where the shows sit down, they get the shows when they’re brand new, when they’re hot,” Broecker said. “Our goal is to get the shows to Columbus as fast as we can, while they’re popular.”

Sally Pedon, a Columbus resident, says she attends both events at Nationwide Arena and shows at Short North Stage. Pedon doesn’t have an opinion on the tax yet, but attended the final public meeting to learn more.

“I’m here to hear the presentation about why we need to add this tax onto ticket fees and to hear from people that are in opposition so I can get a balanced perspective,” Pedon said.

The Greater Columbus Arts Council will host one more forum for smaller players. After that, it hopes to submit a proposal to Columbus City Council in September.

Adora Namigadde was a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU News in February 2017. A Michigan native, she graduated from Wayne State University with a B.A. in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in French.