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Theater managers tout role in Frederick's economy

Monday - 1/23/2012, 12:13pm  ET

Enjoying a play or concert at a local theater may seem like a small way to help the economy, but the impact is significant.

Managers for local theaters said patrons not only help keep the arts alive in the city of Frederick, but also have an effect on stores, hotels and other businesses.

Studies have shown the impact of theaters put more than $1 billion a year into the economy nationwide, said Shuan Butcher, executive director of the Frederick Arts Council.

A 2008 study of nonprofit theaters in Frederick showed an economic impact of $10 million, Butcher said.

That doesn't include the expanded impact on dining, art galleries, dance studios, hotels and other entities that benefit, he said.

"Even when the economy is not so good, arts do better," said Tad Janes, artistic director for the Maryland Ensemble Theatre.

Figures show growth

According to figures released by the theaters, business was good in 2011.

The MET had total revenue of more than $400,000 last year, with earned income of nearly $211,000. More than 16,000 people attended 175 performances.

The Weinberg Center for the Arts had total revenue of $1.4 million. Earned income at the Weinberg was more than $800,000 with an attendance of 65,000 patrons.

At the Maryland Shakespeare Festival, more than 30,000 people attended performances across Maryland. The festival, based in downtown Frederick, earned $118,000.

Although no specific dollar amounts were reported, Way Off Broadway on the Golden Mile had a 7 percent increase in ticket sales and 5 percent growth in revenue last year.

"It was modest growth," said Justin Kiska, president and managing director at Way Off Broadway. "But when many theaters are closing their doors, I'll take a small increase any day."

Butcher said the Cultural Arts Center doesn't collect revenue data as 33 different groups used the center last year. Estimated attendance was 9,200 people for a variety of performances.

Ripple effect for local economy

The Maryland State Arts Council, part of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, says for every dollar of the ticket price to a theater, an additional $2.17 is spent in the community for food, shopping, parking and other things, Janes said.

"Last year was the worst economy, yet in the past two years we have seen growth," Kiska said. "I can't wait to see what happens this year."

John Healey, executive theater manager at the Weinberg Center, said most of the theatergoers are from out of town.

"More are staying at local hotels. It is becoming a destination place," Healey said of downtown Frederick and its theaters.

Healey said the annual arts festival downtown brings in groups and the Weinberg is expanding its audience with group tours from Pennsylvania.

"People can come to see the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, the Delaplaine Center, as well as the theaters."

Kiska said many of the customers at Way Off Broadway ask for hotel recommendations. His theater is getting charter bus groups as well.

"Economics is driving it," said John Bellomo, artistic director of the Maryland Shakespeare Festival. "We get people from Montgomery County, Loudoun County (Va.), Howard County. They could drive either way, but we are cheaper than Washington or Baltimore."

Janes pointed toward convenience.

"You can park here, have dinner at any one of 35 different restaurants and still get to the theater performance," Janes said.

Healey said arts can be the key to the revitalization of a downtown area.

"I'm from Philadelphia, and it was closing at night. The city started supporting arts and the downtown is coming back," Healey said.

More than just dollars and cents

Most people don't think of the arts when they think of the local economy, Healey said.

Butcher noted the recognition Frederick has received from the state, naming the city as the top arts spot in 2010.

"It really has become an arts destination," Butcher said.

It can be factor in drawing businesses to Frederick, Healey said. Companies are impressed with a vibrant downtown and arts community for its executives and employees, Healey said.

Many of those companies sponsor theater productions, even though some don't attend them, Bellomo said.

"Some are put off by Shakespearean plays," Bellomo said.

Another benefit is to youth who become involved in plays, the theater managers said.

"We can often help students, maybe aged 12 or 13, to learn skills and it helps pull them out of their shells," Janes said.

For the nonprofit theaters, as with other nonprofits, the people involved have a passion for what they are doing, Bellomo said.

It can be a lot of work, the managers said.

"You wear a lot of hats," Butcher said. "You are the project manager, the IT person, director, actor. You have to be ready to do it all."