Thursday, June 14, 2007

No Regards For Broadway - Or Why Doesn't Los Angeles Have An Economic Development Policy?

Everyone in city government talks about creating well paying jobs in Los Angles, but little constructive action is taken that accomplishes anything. Opportunity after opportunity to create new businesses, bring existing businesses to our city or even keep existing businesses in Los Angeles come – and pass – without anything resembling a concentrated and coordinated public private partnership to accomplish these goals.

It's also far from just the current administration that is at fault. For at least fifty years, the City of Los Angeles – in both its private, non-profit and public sectors - has one of the worst records of any major city when it comes to bringing or keeping businesses and the jobs they bring.

An article in last Sunday's Times give just one example of the kind of project the city should have been effectively working on, but which the city has instead just commissioned a series of improbable plans with no action ever taken to implement them. The article describes how the sale of music has plunged, how TV networks are hemorrhaging viewers and how audiences for films have dropped in three of the past four years. The declines in the concert business and the drops in the sale of books have also been well chronicled.

But, as the article states, virtually the only not-on-line entertainment audience that has consistently grown in this country has been the audience for Broadway theater. After being given up for dead after 9/11, New York’s 39 Broadway theaters just sold 12.3 million tickets this past season – setting yet another record. Grosses were up almost 9% hitting $939 million, with the box office projected to hit the billion dollar mark this season.

But that is only the beginning of the story. Only a fraction of those tickets are sold to residents of New York City. The vast majority of theater goers come from the suburbs of New York, the rest of the nation – or overseas. Five million of the ticket buyers were tourists from other parts of the United States and 1.3 million more tickets were sold to tourists from other countries – the fastest growing component of the Broadway theater audience - and the highest spending of all tourists.

Importantly, five million of those tickets were bought by people who specifically came to New York to see: Broadway Theater. The result is dozens … yes, dozens … of new hotels are being built. Is there any question why LA has to massively subsidize our handful of new hotels or why our convention center sits comparatively empty compared to the bustling New York City convention center?

Even two years ago – when the box office gross was far lower, Broadway theater brought almost $5-billion – yes, almost five billion dollars - into the New York economy and supported over 45,000 jobs not just in Manhattan – but throughout all of New York City. And both those numbers will be considerably higher with the new higher audience numbers.

Yet the most recent of the City of Los Angeles’ sponsored reports on LA’s Broadway, totally ignored even the possibility of bringing back Broadway theater to our Broadway theaters. Instead, it proposed using them for almost every other possible use rather than Broadway theater including turning many of them into bars, clubs and restaurants – uses that can go in virtually any kind of building without destroying the ability LA’s historic theaters to function as theaters.

Fortunately, the CRA realized the staggering incompetence of this report and refused to fund the second part since it would have only further damaged the efforts to bring LA’s theaters back to life.

Now, there is finally - belatedly - some action being taken on studying real world solutions concerning both the parking problems of LA’s Broadway District and the other physical infrastructure issues that currently handicap our theaters. But even now absolutely nothing is being done to investigate how to physically restore these theaters and put them to use creating jobs and business. And absolutely nothing is being done to encourage the major producers of Broadway plays to consider using LA’s Broadway theaters.

So exactly why is our city in both the public and the private sectors so incapable of even asking the right questions, much less providing pragmatic, real-world solutions to our economic development problems? And what can you do to fix this problem? Stay tuned. I’ll have that story for you right after intermission.

(Brady Westwater is Chair of the LA NC Congress. He is also a writer and frequent contributor to CityWatch.)

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