LIMA — The state of entertainment is in danger, so event organizers are having to be more creative than ever to provide safe and desirable options.
COVID-19 has continued to upend the entertainment industry since March. With mass gatherings still banned and no clear end to that in immediate sight, both venues and patrons are having to seek out new things to do.
Venues nearing the danger zone
“The reality is that arts were the first to close and will be the last to open, and there’s not anything in place to help fund the arts industry,” explained Tafi Stober, executive director of the Niswonger Performing Arts Center. “To bring entertainment indoors right now, the capacity is such a limited nature that you can’t get the cash flow to support that. I know there’s a very real reality right now that it’s going to be tough for the arts industry to survive. That’s where we are.”
The last event held at Niswonger was Little Texas on Feb. 29. Since then, Van Wert Live has hosted a paired down version of its annual Fountain Park free summer concert series, which is still down about 25% in attendance.
“One of the benefits of being part of Van Wert Live are the other venues. We were hanging on to the fair concert as an opportunity for revenue, and now we’re losing 100% of that,” Stober said. “Losing that was difficult, and now we have to plan ahead into the future where indoor events, maybe even up until 2022, won’t be feasible.”
Van Wert Live will finish out its summer concert series in the next two weeks. After that, Stober said they are bracing for the possibility that they will need to halt operations until late 2021.
“It’s devastating because there’s not really a replacement for live entertainment,” she said. “Some have been streaming entertainment people can get anywhere for free, but our audience, that’s not really what they’re seeking. We applaud those going that way because it’s a lot of investment with very little return. At the end of the day, if we can’t do something that brings in revenue, then we can’t exist. We are supported by grants and backed by the Van Wert County Foundation, but ticket sales are the largest bulk of our revenue.”
Like Niswonger, the Veterans Memorial Civic Center is also feeling the pressure.
“The Civic Center is in a pretty desperate spot right now,” said CEO Abe Ambroza. “As a municipal building, we haven’t been eligible for PPE or SBA loans. We have received zero dollars in federal aid up to this point. We’ve had to cut our staff down to 50% of what it was pre-COVID, and we’re probably going to have to continue to do more cuts … It’s very possible if we’re not able to get aid from the new federal packages or the public, we will have to reach out for a loan to make it through into next May.”
Despite the struggles, Ambroza, like Stober, said it’s crucial to be able to still offer some form of entertainment for the public. The Civic Center Curtain Call summer concert series has continued through the summer, and Ambroza said its attendance may even be slightly better than last year’s.
“We’re doing all we can in an affordable manner to stay present and relevant to the community, to let them know that we’re here,” he said. “It’s not the same way as when a Scotty McCreery is in town — it’s not that same splash, but it’s enough, and every little bit helps.”
Both venues along with several others in the state, conducted a survey last month to help gauge the public’s interest in the return of live shows. According to both Ambroza and Stober, their audiences are nearly split, with patrons still skeptical of going out and those ready for it to return.
A change in what we consider entertainment
With no major headlining events, Visit Greater Lima has shifted its focus to highlighting what Director of Tourism and Communication Cara Venturella describes as “grassroots” entertainment, similar to those free concert series by Niswonger and the Civic Center.
“The first trend we saw was virtual and alternate events, and that’s still going strong,” Venturella said. “Now that there has been this small resurgence of events going on and there’s a bit of an opportunity to get out and about, we’re seeing this trend of things more homegrown that we weren’t thinking about prior to the pandemic. The trips to go get ice cream or go see small, local bands performing at a bar are suddenly becoming something that’s very in-demand.”
Though a lack of tourism can take a big hit on a local economy, Venturella said the visitor’s bureau sees this as an opportunity to show some love to smaller organizations and events, only growing to the list of what makes the greater Lima region attractive to visit.
“This has really allowed us to reach out and work with these individual businesses and groups that we don’t necessarily always have the opportunity to do so,” she said. “As we started doing research on what other visitors bureaus were doing, we’re seeing this resurgence of promoting within the community and how promoting those things we have in our community to our community is kind of building that pride up. There’s this movement in tourism that community pride is going to shine outward so that when people are ready to travel, it can trickle outward into travelers when they’re looking for where to visit.”
Much like everything else, Venturella said she’s projecting the tourism will ease its way back, which will only benefit smaller markets like Lima.
“We imagine that when people feel comfortable enough to travel, they’ll be traveling to communities a little closer to home, which is a great opportunity for small communities like ours to really shine and show people in larger, surrounding cities what we have to offer,” she explained.
One of the most viable options that have been pushed not only locally, but also by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, are the use of parks and other outdoor facilities.
Chris Fetzer with the Johnny Appleseed Metropolitan Park District said spring attendance was up about 57% as the pandemic began to hit the area. Overall attendance decreased from that in May and June with reservable facilities and the beach at Ottawa Metro Park remaining closed, but other parks such as Hermon Woodlands are seeing record numbers of people on the trails.
With larger venues such as the Niswonger and Civic Center unsure of when they can safely bring back large-scale events, creating your own fun is the new normal for now.
“Because we’re not encouraged to travel too far, we’re encouraging people to take this time to reach out to other community members and organizations on social media, to do some of their own research to find out what you have in your own backyard and do it, Venturella said. “There are so many things that we tend to forget about because they’re in our own backyard.”
Reach Tara Jones at 567-242-0511.