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Cost of fairgrounds concerts hitting a rough chord with City Council

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The shows at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds may have been a big hit for fans but they hit a sour note financially for the city, with Watertown spending nearly $58,000 on them this past concert season.

The city provided $57,892.02 in staffing, electrical work and other expenses. However, those costs were offset by $19,241.83 in parking and concession fees and rental revenues. So the city of Watertown ended up shelling out a net $38,650.19 in expenditures for the six big-name shows held at the fairgrounds this summer.

In recent weeks, City Council members have been debating whether Watertown pitches in too much to help concert promoters, who, for their part, maintain that they are taking all the financial risks while improving the quality of life in Northern New York.

“They are commercial ventures that we are essentially subsidizing,” Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham said in arguing that the city should either try to recoup more of those expenses or set aside money in the city’s annual budget for concert expenses. “I just think we should be upfront with it.”

Joseph L. Rich, former executive director and still a volunteer with the Disabled Persons Action Organization, which puts on shows at the fairgrounds as fundraisers, said he understands that the city should be concerned about its expenses.

“I just want it to be fair and equitable for us,” Mr. Rich said, adding that he was shown the Parks and Recreation Department report that outlines the city’s expenses when he met with city officials about proposed changes in fairgrounds fees two weeks ago.

Mr. Rich said he was surprised by some of the figures in the report put together by Parks and Recreation Superintendent Erin E. Gardner.

The DPAO presented four shows this concert season at the fairgrounds that brought in a total of 15,000 people, Mr. Rich said. The shows featured country star Blake Shelton on July 6, comedian Bill Cosby on July 28, children’s entertainers Doodle Bops on Aug. 4 and 1970s rock bands Journey and Loverboy on Aug. 14.

In addition, a private concert promoter, AMP Entertainment of Watertown, brought in country singer John Michael Montgomery on June 27 and 1970s rock band Cheap Trick the following night.

It ended up costing the city $8,530.56 for the two AMP concerts, while the DPAO expenses ranged from $3,172.22 for the children’s show to $19,268.46 for Journey.

For years, the DPAO has presented summer concerts at the fairgrounds as fundraisers to pay for services it provides to its 500 clients and their families. Mr. Rich contends the shows help a lot of people who live in the city of Watertown.

“I just don’t understand the council,” he said. “In the past, they took that into consideration.”

He also pointed out that the thousands of people who attend the concerts from outside of Northern New York spend money at hotels, restaurants, stores and gas stations.

Visitors generally spend about one-third of their money on lodging, 25 percent on dining and the remaining amount for concert tickets and for shopping when they come to town for those types of events, said Gary S. DeYoung, director of tourism at the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council. He could not provide specific figures.

Meanwhile, Councilman Jeffrey M. Smith agreed that the city should be fair, noting that it does not charge organizations that put on the Veterans Day, Watertown Goes Green Irish festival and holiday parades, so it should do the same for DPAO.

“You do it for the public benefit,” Mr. Smith said, stressing “there has to be some consistency.”

But Councilwoman Teresa R. Macaluso said that not everyone wants to shell out $70 to attend one of the concerts, so taxpayers should not have to help subsidize them.

The fees add up quickly. The city charges $1,000 to concert promoters and organizations to rent out the municipal arena and other facilities at the city-owned fairgrounds, and $500 each for setting up the day before the shows and breaking them down the day after. The city also receives 10 percent of the gross revenues for food concessions.

But it often costs thousands of dollars to provide electrical equipment needed to put on the concerts. And besides providing workers from the Electrical Department, the city Parks and Recreation Department provides staff — sometimes as many as 15 part-time employees and two full-timers — to direct cars parking at the fairgrounds before the concerts.

Most of the staffing expenses go for overtime pay, Mrs. Gardner said.

Some concertgoers show up for tailgate parties before evening concerts, so she has to send city Parks Department staff out to collect $1 parking fees as early as 2 p.m., she said. After the shows, her staff also has to fix up the athletic fields so they can be used for other activities, she said.

Recently, city staff had proposed charging flat fees for patron parking and for operating food concessions at concerts and other events.

Last week, council members decided not to take any action on the new fees because of a lack of support. Instead, they instructed City Manager Sharon A. Addison and Mrs. Gardner to continue to work on the new fees to get to a consensus.

“I think we have to go back to the drawing board,” Councilman Joseph M. Butler Jr. said.

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