WILMINGTON — It caused a bit of a stir amongst officeholders, local media outlets and attentive taxpayers when the City of Wilmington proposed spending $14,000 on VIP season concert tickets at Live Oak Pavilion last summer.
Before signing off on the invoice, city staff crafted a “ticket distribution policy,” which originally would have comped council members for VIP seats and given them first dibs on shows. The only permissible uses for the tickets would have been to promote economic development, recognize city employees or treat nonprofits or entities that are said to enhance the quality of life.
After news outlets picked up stories on the expenditure, first reported by WHQR, the city council faced pushback from residents who opposed the idea of their public dollars being spent on exclusive tickets, costing $176.55 each with tax. In response to the undesirable attention, Mayor Bill Saffo worked with the city attorney to significantly refine the draft policy.
The scaled-back version only allows tickets to be used for stimulating economic development, specifically impressing people who can or are creating jobs. At the time, Saffo said he knew of business people who visited the park of their own volition and “fell in love with it.” Council members would pay for their spots at the VIP table under the new guidelines.
Only one council member ended up taking advantage of the exclusive seat — and he did pay for his ticket, as did his guest, according to the city.
Neil Anderson attended a show with an “executive in the hospitality industry who was exploring expansion opportunities,” a city spokesperson said. Anderson told Port City Daily he believes the business owners are likely still exploring sites and leases.
“It’s just about where and when,” Anderson wrote in a text. “They were going [to the show] regardless. Just wanted to extend the hospitality of the city.”
Turns out, Anderson said the people had tickets with a better view upfront, and they ended up moving seats. He said the city would have treated them had they not already purchased tickets prior to him learning they’d be in town.
“Still served its purpose,” he added.
Anderson was one of two council members in the opposing minority when the refined ticket distribution guidelines were approved in July. At the time he said the city was giving into sensationalized journalism and letting it dictate policy by cutting back on allowable uses for the tickets.
“We were talking about rewarding some employees, potentially. What is wrong with that? What is wrong with taking some kids there that might not be able to afford it?” he said during the July 20 meeting.
Despite the reported low use of the VIP table in 2021, the city has renewed its season tickets for 2022 for $13,911.60. The four-seat box is good for 20 shows.
“Much of the first concert season coincided with the Delta variant surge, which hampered business travel, and impacted the utilization of the box,” city spokesperson Jennifer Dandron explained when asked about the interest in renewing after such little demand.
Last year’s season passes cost the city $13,200, or $14,124 once taxes kicked in. This year’s cost was up slightly to $14,321, or $15,324 with tax. But the city received a $1,412.40 credit from the 2021 season, as Live Nation hosted just 18 of the 20 guaranteed shows, dropping the cost.
It’s unclear what happened to the remaining, roughly $14,000 worth of tickets for the 2021 season. Port City Daily inquired earlier in the week about how many were unused and successfully resold but had yet to receive an answer as of Friday.
Update: The city confirmed it did not resell any unused tickets. When asked why it did not attempt to do so, spokesperson Dandron said: “While re-selling tickets is an option, the intent of the amphitheater seats is to serve as a tool for economic development, allowing potential job creators to see the cultural assets Wilmington has to offer.”
Per the ticket distribution policy, the city is supposed to sell the “surplus” passes when there’s no economic development reason to use them.
To obtain the tickets, a city council or executive staff member is supposed to pitch its use to the city manager, who then deems whether the reasoning is appropriate and in the name of economic development.
Economic development is defined under the policy as: “Ongoing activities determined by the City to increase the population, taxable property, agricultural industries, employment, industrial output, or business prospects of the City, and to encourage revitalization of low-income communities and job development.”
Riverfront Park’s upcoming concert season will span April through October and so far includes announced acts Bon Iver, Leon Bridges and Haim. Live Nation is seeking permission from the city to schedule up to 30 events this year at the venue, 10 more permitted by-right in its contract.
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