THE FORUM—an opinion by Troy R. Siebels, Executive Director of the Hanover Theatre, Worcester, MA, recipient of NETC 2009 Regional Award. A version of this article appeared in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, March 9, 2010.
The City of Worcester (MA) celebrates the two year anniversary of The Hanover Theatre’s grand opening this month. During these two years, it has often been described as the catalyst for the rebirth of downtown Worcester. Over 300,000 patrons have breathed new life into the city, its streets, restaurants, hotels and other businesses while visiting the theatre. With this success, The Hanover Theatre is a good bet for the continued revitalization of Worcester.
Today, The Hanover Theatre, and other wonderful venues like it across New England face a critical threat from resort casinos. If Massachusetts legislators pass legislation this spring green-lighting the construction of resort casinos, the performance venues that are an integral part of those casinos will almost certainly deal a fatal blow to The Hanover Theatre and other non-profit performing arts centers like it, across Massachusetts and in New Hampshire and Vermont; and those performing arts centers in Connecticut and Rhode Island that have thus far survived the presence of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun will now face even bleaker prospects for their future.
What’s the threat? First, because of radius restrictions, performing arts centers like The Hanover Theatre will lose their top headline performers to casinos – performers such as B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, David Copperfield, Bill Cosby, Miranda Lambert, Ian Anderson, Mandy Patinkin and many, many more. At The Hanover Theatre we already have evidence of this, as we have been prevented by Connecticut casinos from booking Jerry Seinfeld, Jackson Browne, Denis Leary and other popular icons.
Next to go will be Broadway shows. Over the past several months Worcester billboards for Foxwoods have advertised Hairspray and Cirque Dreams – two shows that have played at The Hanover Theatre. If a casino in Massachusetts were to book Broadway shows such as these, radius restrictions will prevent those shows from appearing at The Hanover Theatre.
Skeptics may think that this is about competition. Let us assure you, we firmly believe that the arts don’t compete with each other; rather a thriving cultural community begets more culture.
A casino performance venue isn’t simply competition to a non-profit performing arts center – it’s an 800 pound gorilla. And this gorilla doesn’t play by the same rules – a resort casino’s performance venue is considered a loss leader; a way to get people through the door to gamble. Resort casinos can pay above-market rates for performers, and charge less for tickets. They regularly give away free incentives, including theatre tickets, hotel rooms and meals in excess of 10 percent of their annual gaming revenue. That can easily amount to $50 million a year or more in free tickets, room and food. The casino isn’t selling tickets in order to pay for the show – it’s giving away free tickets so that people will come and gamble.
It is ironic that the case being made for resort casinos in Massachusetts is based on the economic benefit they will purportedly create, when so much evidence points to exactly the opposite effect. The casino’s business model is built around keeping people from leaving the building. No windows, no clocks – nothing to remind gamblers that there’s anywhere they might want to be other than at the blackjack table or slot machine. How can we possibly believe that this model will bring one dollar to the economic activity of the surrounding area? “Resort” casinos are designed to be just that – everything under one roof, including restaurants, shopping and a theatre featuring headline performers to bring people in, subsidized by gambling dollars.
The casinos will bring in dollars – dollars that currently are spent by New Englanders at our Performing Arts Centers and other cultural organizations and in our local communities.
The casinos will create jobs – but they will be the same jobs lost when local performing arts centers, stores and restaurants close their doors. Further, those jobs will not be the only cost. The 300,000 people who have visited The Hanover Theatre in the past two years have dined at nearby restaurants, parked in city garages, shopped nearby. When those 300,000 people visit the theatre in a resort casino, they’ll spend those ancillary dollars at the casino’s restaurants, stores and slot machines. The same holds true for the millions of people that have visited other performing arts centers throughout New England.
We urge you not to be distracted by all of the noise about casino gambling in Massachusetts and do your own research. Look at New London, Connecticut, where more than thirty restaurants closed following the opening of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. Look at Cripple Creek, Colorado: a once-thriving downtown went from 66 restaurants to less than 10. Look at performing arts centers in other cities where the impact from nearby resort casinos has been devastating. It took us less than an hour on the phone with managers of theatres in Reading, Pennsylvania; Fresno, California and Ames, Iowa to be convinced.
It is critical that we keep what is benefiting our region, rather than gamble it away. New England’s cultural institutions are an economic engine and an integral part of the fabric of our communities. The Hanover Theatre and others like it were built and survive on the support and generosity of thousands of attendees, members and contributors. We must not throw away their investment on a bad bet.