Most major centers for the arts, like an old theater downtown, usually don't turn a profit. They're not really expected to. But at a forum Tuesday morning at downtown Syracuse's Landmark Theatre, the argument was made that grandiose theaters shouldn't be viewed as charities.
Instead, those in the local business and arts community claim they're just one component in the larger downtown economic engine.
Think of them as a "loss leader", the item a store sells at a loss in order to get people into the store.
Mark Nerenhausen, a professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Janklow Arts program, says the economic approach to measuring a theater's impact should be completely different. The parking fees, bar tabs and restaurant bills a playgoer racks up should all be factored in, he says.
He puts it like this: the Landmark Theatre is just one department in the store that is downtown.
"Just sort of imagine what would happen if all of this were owned by one entity? How would we manage it differently?" Nerenhausen asks. "Well, what's standing in the way of doing that? The fact that it's actually separate ownership shouldn't stand in the way."
A new set of metrics should be created for measuring the impact of the arts on a city, Nerehausen argues.
"It’s simply a question of, looking at the connections, understanding (at) what drives the connections and working intentionally to maximize those," he says.
The Landmark Theatre opened in downtown Syracuse in 1928 as one of many silent movie halls. It's the last one left. A year ago this month, the theater completed a $16 million renovation of its backstage to make room for bigger shows.
The Broadway hit Wicked is in the midst of a run at the theater. In years past, major plays were performed at the civic center on the outskirt of downtown. That theater had a bigger backstage, but also a thousand fewer seats than the Landmark's 2,900.
And as local business owner Joel Shapiro observed, that meant less foot traffic hitting the shops and restaurants of downtown.
Shapiro believes that if the Landmark could get the number of nights it's "lit" (putting on a performance), up from 150 nights a year to 200, that would be enough of an economic boost to see a full transformation of the blocks surrounding the theater.
Another off-Broadway hit to take a turn in Syracuse this fall was Jersey Boys. For its three week run at the Landmark, 14,167 tickets were sold to residents of Onondaga County (where Syracuse sits). Just 800 less; 13,363 were sold to Canadians.
That's big news for David Holder, president of the Syracuse Convention and Visitors Bureau. Those Canadian visitors spent $2.59 million while they were here, according to Holder.
"One of the key things is how unique we can make [the Landmark Theatre] translates into how many visitors we can attract to our community," Holder says.