Get a Room

Lodging revenues are down since Sept. 11, and that could mean trouble for the arts

"Support the arts. Fuck in a hotel."

Now there's a marketing campaign that would catch some attention. More than, for sure.

The aftershocks of Sept. 11 continue to ripple through our region in unforeseen ways. When people got queasy about traveling, hotels and motels got cancellations. "Devastating -- it killed us," says a representative of the downtown Radisson. Thirty-five to 40 percent of revenues were lost, and although business is starting to come back, "It's gonna be quiet the next couple of months," he predicts.

"Oh boy," is all a clerk at the Renaissance Hotel has to say when asked about cancellations since Sept. 11.

Some hotels are emptier than others. Those near Lambert Field and downtown have taken the hardest hits. Everybody in the business suffered substantially the last two weeks of September, but businesses located on the highways have reported that travelers are coming back slowly (no fear of hijackers on the freeways). Reservations are still down from this time last year, though.

The future of artistic expression in the region is in direct correlation to bodies in hotel and motel beds. The Regional Arts Commission receives nearly all its revenue from a hotel-motel tax that gives it a budget of about $4.4 million. Most of that (more than $3 million) is then granted to nonprofit arts organizations. But without those bodies in the beds, chances are there won't be so many dancers and actors on the stages or paintings and sculptures in the arts spaces. If you love the arts, treat your sweet one to a night of freshly laundered sheets with "Ritz-Carlton" embroidered on the pillowcases.

And you really do need to play it up big and check into the Regal Riverfront, not the Motel 6 -- the money RAC doles out is based on the revenue the hotels receive. The higher the room rate, the greater the artistic ambitions: "It's for freedom of expression, baby."

RAC's deputy director, Dan Tierney, is in charge of determining the commission's budget for next year from revenue projections but says, "We have no idea what's going to happen."

The last two weeks of September came at the end of the third fiscal quarter, and Tierney says RAC still doesn't have the final figures for that time, much less an account of the generally dismal October, which comes in with the final quarter of 2001.

Revenues are going to be down, but as yet it's unsure just how far down or how this will affect RAC and the organizations it funds. Tierney takes the optimistic view, basing it on anecdotal evidence. A friend in the business says the Plaza Frontenac Hilton has done fairly well, but Tierney didn't talk to the guy at the Radisson. St. Louis wasn't hurt as badly as other cities, the Convention and Visitors Commission has told Tierney. "People weren't flying into St. Louis, they were driving into St. Louis, so conferences were doing fairly well," Tierney says -- but, then, he didn't see the empty lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in October.

"So when you get all that information, what assessment do you make?" Tierney asks.

One determination that has been made by the commissioners, Tierney says, is, "We're not going to cut any grants." Nonprofit arts groups receive money from RAC in two-year grant cycles, "and we're not going to touch that," he affirms. "I don't see us cutting anybody, but over the next year we will sit and watch what happens, and if it's horrible, then in two years we might have to look at something. But I don't see that happening."

And he won't see that happening if you art lovers cozy up to more than the Ando and get a room.

And John Goodman, too: Meanwhile, although times are tenuous for nonprofit arts groups -- as if they were ever otherwise -- the Loop Theater project stays on course. Joe Edwards moves another step closer to sainthood. The owner of Blueberry Hill and the developer of the Tivoli moviehouse and the Pageant concert venue, Edwards is getting into the theater business. Sitting in his restaurant in midafternoon, Edwards isn't quite ready to compare himself to Rocco Landesman. "I'm part of a group trying to create a performing-arts space," he demurs.

Edwards says he was contacted by Julie George-Carlson a couple of years ago, not long after the closing of the St. Marcus Theatre launched a diaspora of theater groups. George-Carlson has worked as managing director of the Ozark Actors Theatre, with more theater cred under her belt from previous time in Maine.

"I always thought theater would be nice in the Loop," says Edwards, but he had nothing to offer her when she called. Then, in March, the deacons of Olivet Missionary Baptist Church called Edwards, telling him they were moving and were looking for a buyer. Edwards called George-Carlson back.

"Joe's the link," says George-Carlson on another afternoon in another Loop restaurant. She'd been searching on her own for performing-arts spaces. "When I came to St. Louis [from Maine]," she says, "I recognized immediately all these small groups doing their thing and thought, 'What if there was this place for them?'"

That's been the question for years in St. Louis, with various performance groups moving like vagabonds from space to space for performance and rehearsal. Of course, the one thing St. Louis has is space, but performers aren't developers, and most developers aren't looking to build a house for a night of one-acts or sweaty folks in leotards -- not when they could just as easily put in a new Walgreen's.

Enter Edwards. He's paid $654,000 for the building, and the Loop Theater, with George-Carlson at the helm, is launching a $3.5 million capital campaign to pay for the renovation. The future performing-arts space will include a mainstage with arena seating in the former church sanctuary, as well as a rehearsal space, box-office facilities and built-in lighting and sound equipment. Down the line, if all goes according to plan, a theater annex will be created to house a black-box space for those edgier, up-close-and-angsty performances St. Louisans have been bereft of since the St. Marcus days.

George-Carlson already has a list of more than 10 performance companies involved in the project, including Atrek Contemporary Dance, Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre, Metro Theatre, Midnight Productions and (Mostly) Harmless Theatre. She also got a call from a former St. Louisan living in New York whose mother told her about the proposed new space. "She's coming back to town and making plans," says George-Carlson.

Of course, if the fear of terrorism continues to keep people at home and out of the hotels, the Loop Theater might be able to rent out to high-school productions of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Annie, but George-Carlson and Edwards are much more optimistic. "I'd like to see talent stay and for St. Louis to be a destination for talent," says George-Carlson. "The climate is right for groups to come together and look toward St. Louis as a place for the best potential theater in the country."

Edwards says he isn't feeling any anxiety over current events. "There's all the more reason to have art spaces," after Sept. 11. "Who know what kind of plays will be written or performed in the current context?"

Besides, John Goodman has signed on as an honorary board member to the project, adding star luster to the appeal.

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