Crowds not part of RAD formula

| Sunday, Dec. 4, 2011

Fans at Steelers and Pirates games should raise a cheer for their fellow taxpayers, who spent $5 for each person attending a game or concert at Heinz Field and PNC Park to pay off the stadiums' debt.

Patrons of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh could cheer, but (s-h-h-h) not too loudly. Taxpayers spent more than $8 for each visitor at city branches, compared with $1 per visitor at suburban libraries.

The amount of taxpayer money the Allegheny Regional Asset District awarded to sports or cultural attractions varied from pennies to $40 a head, an analysis of RAD data from 2010 shows.

"There are a lot of groups getting money that, on a per-user basis, are highly questionable," said Jake Haulk, president of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. "What you found here should be the basis for the RAD board to look at how they're spending the money."

RAD supports parks, libraries, stadiums and cultural groups with half of the proceeds of an additional 1 percent sales tax in Allegheny County.

"While attendance is one of the factors that's looked at, it's not the only factor," said David Donahoe, executive director of RAD.

Others include a group's revenue, expenses, program quality and whether it runs its own facility.

The law requires RAD to support some groups, such as the National Aviary and Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens -- attractions the city used to run.

RAD recipients provide data on how many visitors bought tickets or attended events for free. Some organizations use people-counters to measure unpaid attendance.

Attendance figures for city and county parks include paid activities such as skating and swimming, and unpaid events such as Hartwood Acres programs and movies. But the numbers exclude people who simply visit the parks.

The Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council received the biggest RAD subsidy at $40.39 a person, based on a $54,000 grant and attendance of 1,337.

"Personally, I don't think we belong in this list because we don't sell a performance or production," CEO Mitch Swain said. The Downtown-based arts council holds meetings and trains workers in the arts at all levels.

Next highest was the August Wilson Center at $21.94 for each person who attended an event, based on a $247,500 RAD grant and attendance of 12,534.

"That doesn't surprise me, that our (attendance) numbers were on the lower side compared to others," Executive Director Andre Kimo Stone Guess said. "It's a function of age. Where we are now is a fraction of where we'll be in a short while."

The center opened in 2009.

Carnegie Library spokeswoman Trina Walker said the Carnegie system gets $8 from RAD for every $1 given to the county system because RAD money replaces allocations the city and county once provided. RAD has augmented municipal funding to suburban libraries with $109 million since 1995.

Walker said the Carnegie is the designated county library, offering unique services such as running a business library and preserving historical materials.

"When you're subsidizing any organization to the tune of $10 or so per visitor, you got to wonder if they're setting their ticket prices too low or if they shouldn't be raising money from other sources than RAD," Haulk said.

The group with the lowest RAD money for each user was Renaissance City Wind Music Society, at 1 cent. But its attendance includes 400,000 listeners on WQED and WQEJ, without whom the attendance drops to 486 people and its RAD subsidy rises to $6.48 a person.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust received $693,000 from RAD last year, equivalent to 76 cents on each of the 907,288 people who attended its events.

The trust's paid attendance dropped from 771,800 people in 2009 to 423,938 last year. Unpaid attendance nearly tripled from 163,834 to 483,350.

Trust President and CEO J. Kevin McMahon attributed the increase in unpaid attendance to popular gallery crawls, First Night and Three Rivers Arts Festival, which it assumed last year. He traced the decline in paid attendance to the lack of blockbuster attractions in 2010, such as the 2009 shows "Jersey Boys" and "Radio City Christmas Spectacular."

"Those can swing hundreds of thousands of paid attendance differences," McMahon said.

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