State of the State

Imagine this: an out-of-town, multi-millionaire opens a business in downtown Traverse City. He doesn't pay any property tax, won't pay most of his staff, creates one or two direct-paid jobs and perhaps a handful of indirect minimum wage jobs, and he wants the City to provide free parking!

This wealthy, influential businessman is not vilified in the local paper, instead he's put on a pedestal and praised at every opportunity. City Commissioners giggle over his jokes, allow him to speak beyond the five-minute time limit, and vote unanimously to accommodate his request for free parking at the Hardy Parking Deck.

Welcome to the world of Michael Moore and the State Theatre. As noted in last month's column, Moore deserves recognition for his vision and leadership in restoring the State Theatre and he's received that, with enough clippings from a fawning local press to cover the State's giant movie screen. But wait, there's more: the theater is a gift from Rotary Charities, the downtown location is worth over a million dollars and exempt from property taxes, the staff is all volunteer, and now parking in the Hardy Deck is free! So, you can go see Atonement and park for free downtown, or at the mall, and pay full price in both locations!

Does the non-profit status of The State give it an unfair advantage in the marketplace, or is it an economic tool to attract more foot traffic to the downtown district? Why would a non-profit organization such as Centre I.C.E. have to pay property taxes on its ice arena if the State Theatre is exempt? Both provide economic stimuli, both provide access to the public, and in the case of the ice arena, the facility and services aren't available elsewhere.

The State Theater does offer free movies for kids and access to community groups, which has resulted in such events as the MSU vs. U of M basketball game on the big screen, high school film club screenings, and a better venue for the library's Cinema Curioso. This access to community groups is one of the conditions insisted on by Rotary Charities.

The State Theatre re-opened in a downtown district that was already alive with a blend of specialty stores and outstanding restaurants, not to mention a healthy workday population of brokers, bankers, advertising and marketing execs, and so on. No doubt the State Theatre is an economic sparkplug, especially at night, but it is not the theatre that saved Traverse City.

I question the advantages the State enjoys, but I love the theatre, I love having it downtown, and I like the variety of films offered. I am not alone. Big crowds have embraced the movie fare and special events at the State since it re-opened, and the TC Film Festival has been a success since day one. There are four other film festivals in Michigan, and over 300 across the country. In Jenkintown, Penn., a 100-year-old film house was restored by a volunteer group using local donations and government grants. In Andy Griffith's hometown of Mt. Airy, NC, a community group raised money to restore a 60-year old theatre that now offers G-rated fare at reduced prices five nights a week.

What's with the movie mania? The magic of the big screen has not faded in the wake of watch-it-now technology like YouTube, iPod, and DVR. If anything, it's more appealing. Perhaps it's the "high touch" reaction to "high-tech" predicted by John Naisbitt in the 1980s book, "Megatrends." The more time we spend in front of a computer monitor or behind a windshield, the more we desire actual human contact, and community experiences.

I salute the volunteers who worked so hard to restore the State and those who continue to work as unpaid staff. I salute the Rotary Charities board for giving the theatre to Moore and the TC Film Festival under conditions that will give them the best chance at success. I salute those business owners who have to compete every day for their slice of the pie while trying to keep prices down, pay employees enough, and, of course, pay the tax bill. Taxes that help pay for sidewalks, streetlights, police and fire departments, and free parking.

Ron Jolly has been on radio and/or TV in northern Michigan for 24 years. He has hosted the WTCM NewsTalk 580 morning program for 13 years and is the author of The Northern Michigan Almanac (U of M Press/Petoskey Publishing, 2005).