By Russ Lay on May 27, 2013
Unless there is a change in sentiment as the General Assembly winds down its 2013 session, Roanoke Island Festival Park may be known as “RIP” over the next few years.
Which raises the question of whether a facility that cost close to $10 million of state taxpayer money to build should be left for possible failure under the new realities of a sluggish economy.
In the 2011 session, the General Assembly passed House Bill 22, which said: “Beginning with the 2015-16 fiscal year, the Roanoke Island Commission shall be self-supporting.”
The bill called for incremental reductions in funding to the state- operated site over the next four budget cycles. The Roaonoke Island Commission is one of the entitites running the facility.
To help plan for the transition, the park and North Carolina’s Department of Cultural Resources engaged a private firm, Shultz & Williams, to devise a four-year plan of financial sustainability that was to be presented to the House and Senate appropriations committees for the 2013 session.
But when Gov. Pat McCrory submitted his 2013-14 budget to the General Assemby this year, he ignored the four-year transition plan passed by the Republican legislature and slashed all state funding for the park.
Thus far, the General Assembly has allowed the elimination of that funding to stand.
The loss of state funding, which amounts to about $1 million in 2013, accounts for almost half of the park’s expenditures, and well more than half of the park’s income.
According to the Shultz & Williams study, those state funds approximate the actual cost of simply maintaining the state-owned facility, a 27-acre site.
The study indicated the annual costs of maintaining the facility (site, buildings, and equipment) totals $953,000. Add in a 3 percent reserve for emergency repair and replacement and the annual cost is $982,000.
Last year, RIFP took in about $390,000 in visitor revenues.
Expenses came to just over $2 million.
But the private study also estimated the total financial impact of the park to be between $6 and $7 million, with much of that money flowing to Manteo and Roanoke Island.
The park is managed by two governing bodies, the Roanoke Island Commission, which was established when the facility was built in the mid-90s, and the Friends of Elizabeth II, established in the 1980s to build and maintain a life-sized working model of the sailing vessel that brought the first English colonists to North America.
The Shultz and Williams study indicated the park and its two governing bodies could do more to enhance locally generated revenues.
It concluded, however, that state revenues of about $1 million annually would always be required in the foreseeable future if the park were to remain open.
The massive facility includes an outdoor amphitheater, the Elizabeth II, a settlement site, an American Indian town, the Roanoke Adventure Museum, a theater which shows “The Legend of Two Path’s” film, the Roanoke Maritime Museum, the Outer Banks History Center and a nature walk that includes a boardwalk.
Off-site, the facility is also responsible for the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse.
Kim Sawyer, the executive director of the park, cites interpretive history aspects of the park as its core mission, the reason the park was created and the primary focus of the RIC.
Each year, thousands of public school students from across the state visit the park and learn about the nation’s early history.
Likewise, the Friend’s core mission began with the Elizabeth II and has morphed into a broader one of providing operating funds to the park when its investment income allows, as well as building a non-profit endowment fund they hope will one day reach $20 million and generate $1 million annually in dividends.
The park is not without its critics, both past and present, and part of that criticism has been directed at what one board member described as “a gift we never asked for.”
Some see that gift, the park’s amphitheater, as an underused facility that could replace the loss of state funds.
Others see it as a distraction from the park’s core mission and claim booking profitable events for the facility is easier said than done.
Certainly, neither governing board saw themselves in the business of operating an outdoor entertainment venue along the lines of Virginia’s “Wolf Trap” or Atlanta’s “Chastain Park.”
While many envision a summer concert series attracting tourists and locals in and off-season, Sawyer pointed out that the Outer Banks’ out-of-the-way location makes it difficult for well-known acts to take a travel detour to the area.
Summer concerts add another logistical twist relative to finding lodgings for the performers and attracting a tourist population that turns over completely every seven days.
However, critics make a valid point in claiming the venue is seldom used and often offers summer shows on weekend nights, which are turnover days, rather than week nights, when tourists are out and about.
A final worry is the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau project in Nags Head, which is now envisioned as an outdoor entertainment venue that could pit one taxpayer-funded facility against another.
Lee Nettles, the executive director of the Visitor’s Bureau, told the Voice his organization is talking with RIFP and that the bureau wants to “complement, not compete, with the amphitheater.”
Another target of critics involves the enterprise funds that both the RIC and the Friends control.
According to a state review, the Friends held total funds of $7.26 million as of December 31, 2012, while the Roanoke Island Commission’s total fund balances stood at $4.07 million as of June 30, 2012.
Thus, it is true that even if the state cut all funding, the park would not be left destitute.
Once again, critics we spoke to suggested the two bodies should use more of those funds to promote the park and especially the amphitheater for more concerts, seafood festivals and a host of other outdoor events.
In speaking with members of both boards, the assumption that the park can spend its way to self-sufficiency is fraught with risk.
Members of both boards are doubtful that turning the outdoor facility into a concert venue will generate the amount of net revenues envisioned by many.
Many popular acts require guaranteed appearance fees, and the cost of insuring a rain date cancellation is extremely high. And riders to the contracts, including accommodations, promoter’s fees and other amenities required by performers, leaves little revenue for the park, even if the event sells out.
Reviewing the operating expense numbers for RIFP compiled by Shultz and Williams, it appears that if the state completely cuts funding to the park, both governing boards would burn through their cash reserves in five or so years, even if they enhanced revenues with events such as onsite weddings and concerts.
The loss of the cash reserves would also mean an end to a permanent endowment fund reaching a level that could, one day, replace the state funding at its current level.
One option would be to privatize the amphitheater.
Even those critical of the park’s past operations cringed at the prospect of a “Budweiser Theater” operating in downtown Manteo with no public-sector control over the venue.
RIFP thought its had five years to transition its focus to more revenue-generating events.
The staff has stepped up promotions to host weddings, Girl and Boy Scout events, more concerts such as the Bluegrass Festival and in June, the nationally acclaimed Straight No Chaser, a male a cappella group, will perform at the park.
Given the cost to build the facility, the wages and salaries generated from the park’s employees, and the total economic impact to the area, especially the Manteo waterfront, cutting off the park completely from state funds seems to be a rather Draconian move.
Like many other issues facing Dare County, civic, business, and elected officials across the region should raise the public level of discourse on RIFP, putting aside regional differences.
And while a case can be made that RIFP has not always been “all it can be,” the focus in the future should be on how best to preserve this important historical site while enhancing its revenue-generating pontential.