Culley proposes admissions tax aimed at State Fair

Posted on Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 1:52 pm

MILFORD – County officials are considering seeking the authority to create a new tax that would be collected on admission fees to fairs and other ticketed events, a move ostensibly aimed at generating revenue from the thousands of people who attend the State Fair of Virginia at Meadow Event Park in Doswell.

The owner of the State Fair, who learned of the proposed tax when informed by The Caroline Progress, was immediately opposed to the idea.

“I’m already taxed to death,” said Mark Lovell, owner of Tennessee-based Universal Fairs, which owns Meadow Event Park and the State Fair and operates the fair in a partnership with the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

The tax was proposed by County Administrator Charles Culley. “The county has a number of venues to which an admissions tax could be applied,” he wrote in a briefing memorandum for the Board of Supervisors, which will consider Culley’s recommendation when they meet Thursday evening this week.

The amount of tax revenue generated to Caroline “could be significant,” added Culley, who also suggested that a portion of the revenue could be used to promote attendance at events.

The county would have to seek authorization from the state legislature in order to levy an admissions tax, and Culley recommended the supervisors authorize him, the county attorney, and the county’s legislative liaison to draft a letter to Caroline’s legislative delegation to seek such authorization.

One member of Caroline’s legislative delegation was immediately cool to the idea. Republican Del. John Cox of Hanover, whose 55th House of Delegates District includes western Caroline as well as Meadow Event Park, dodged the question when asked if he would be willing to sponsor such a bill. Cox, asked about the proposed tax during an appearance at Madison Elementary School on Tuesday, said he was unaware of Culley’s recommendation and would need more information in order to make a decision.

By state law, an admissions tax can be up to 10 percent of an admission fee for attractions, such as fairs, circuses, sporting events and musical events.

“Even five percent is too much,” said Lovell, who scrambled to look for Culley’s briefing memo on the county’s website as he discussed the proposed tax with a reporter. In addition to being the site of the State Fair of Virginia, Meadow Event Park also hosts a number of other special events throughout the year. An admissions tax collected on tickets to other events would generate additional revenue for Caroline, which, like many local governments, has struggled with declining revenues in recent years and responded with both spending cuts and tax increases.

The counties of Fairfax, Arlington, Dinwiddie, Prince George, Brunswick, Culpeper, New Kent, Charlotte, Clarke, Madison, Nelson and Sussex and dozens of cities already have permission to charge an admissions tax.

Gary Wilson, director of the county’s economic development and tourism department, said in a supporting memo to the supervisors that churches and other charitable organizations could be exempted from the proposed admissions tax.

Without mentioning the State Fair of Virginia by name, Wilson gave as an example a hypothetical event with a paid attendance of 200,000. If an admissions tax of 8.33 cents per $1 was charged and admission tickets were $12, that would be $200,000 in tax revenue for the county from that one event, he noted.

Admission prices at this year’s State Fair ranged from $12 for ages 13 and older on weekdays to $15 on weekends. Children 5 to 12 were admitted for $8 on weekdays and $10 on weekends. Children 4 and younger were free.

Attendance at this year’s State Fair, the first for the new partnership between Lovell’s company and the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, ranged from 160,000 to 200,000. However, attendance was 270,000 in 2011 and 227,000 in 2010.

He recently paid Caroline over $60,000 in food service tax alone from an event, Lovell said in a phone interview on Tuesday of this week. “If they keep taxing me to death, I won’t do as many events there,” he said. “I could do several events like that, and they could get that kind of revenue for the county. I have the desire and capability to have something going on at that facility almost constantly. If they keep beating me down, I’ll take my toys and go. Raising more taxes is not the answer.”

Trade shows – such as boat shows, hunting shows, recreational vehicle shows, and other similar events – are struggling financially, said Lovell.

“If they have to raise the price 10 percent or pay 10 percent for what they are getting, less people are going to come. I used to do two boat shows in Memphis, and now I do only one. Boat dealers are having a hard time.”

Trade show organizers will put their events on in Henrico County or other localities in order to avoid paying an admissions tax in Caroline, suggested Lovell.

The supervisors should consider that three previous owners of the 331-acre property – now called the Meadow Event Park – went bankrupt, argued Lovell.

Universal Fairs also operates fairs in Arizona, Georgia, and Tennessee, and only the Georgia locality charges an admissions tax. “It’s only one percent or less,” said Lovell, “and they’ve had it forever.”

“We’re really just looking at this,” Wilson said in a phone interview Tuesday. “It’s the wisdom of the board that has to prevail.”

“A tax on admissions would add another means by which revenue can be raised for the benefit of the citizens of Caroline that would, in most cases, be paid for by visitors attending events designed to attract tourists,” Wilson wrote in his memo. “A percentage of revenue generated should be dedicated to marketing events” and “can be an existing business promotion device.”

The Board of Supervisors will consider Culley’s recommendation at its regular meeting on Thursday of this week. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at the Community Services Center on the Richmond Turnpike in Milford.

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