OPINION: An Idea is Not a Business Plan
Leanne Goebel | 3/21/11
I’m taking the Leading Edge Entrepreneurial Training Class. It’s an intense twelve weeks of learning how to craft a business plan. I’ve been a corporate executive. I’ve owned my own small business. I’ve written business plans before for other people. However, for the first time I’m trying to take one of my own creative ideas and test its viability based on accounting, research, market studies and more. I’m also reading a newly published book for people like me: The Right Brain Business Plan. It’s timely given some recent local developments.

I live in Pagosa Springs, Colorado (town population:1,528; median income $29,469) where two different groups are in the process of building performing arts centers. The Pavilion (formerly named Pagosa Center for the Performing Arts, Inc.) was formed in August 2010 by Janis Moomaw, wife of former Archuleta County commissioner Bob Moomaw whose term ended January 4. 2011. The group changed its name in January after another couple, Tim and Laura Moore, came to town and purchased a vacant building and formed the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts, in November 2010.

For more information on the controversy surrounding the Pavilion, read the article I wrote for the Durango Herald.

Full disclosure, I am also a board member for Arts for Colorado, the advocacy group and am actively involved with the Creative Industries Division having been a grant evaluator for them in the past. I am a big supporter of the arts and believe that after food, shelter, and water, the arts provide an equally necessary element of life. Why else have all ancient cultures produced objects of beauty both functional and non? I also believe that art and culture can provide viable avenues for economic development, though that cannot be their primary purpose, otherwise, they lose their magical quality.

I’ve lived in Pagosa Springs for nine years, and worked for the Arts Council and was involved in the founding of Shy Rabbit Contemporary Arts. I’ve served on the Community Vision Council, the citizens committee for the Comprehensive Plan and Master Plan, and sat on the CVC Arts & Culture Committee.

Our civic leaders do not yet understand that the Creative Sector is the fifth largest job producer in the state of Colorado and I’m pretty sure that not one of them is aware of the current NEA initiative called Our Town or the recent study on creative placemaking, even though I have sent information to key stakeholders in the community.

If any of our elected officials or economic leaders had read the studies they would realize:
  • The audience for the innovation and vision of creative placemaking is usually the residents of a community, not the outsiders or tourists.
  • Yes, placemaking is prompted by an "initiator" with innovative vision and drive, but it also tailors its strategy to distinctive features of the place.
  • By doing so, initiators mobilize the public will, attract private sector buy-in and garner the support of local arts and cultural leaders.
  • Another key to success is building partnerships across sectors, missions, and levels of government. We are just now getting our Town Council and BOCC to talk to one another ... and it sometimes feels like pulling teeth to get folks to work together in this town.
I want nothing more than to support The Pavilion and the Pagosa Springs Center for the Arts (PSCA) — but neither organization has a business plan. They have creative ideas and passion, but no plan, no research; they haven’t thought things through. In the case of The Pavilion and Community Development Corporation, if anyone dares to ask a question or push back on their ideas, they release whiny press releases to the local paper claiming that "critics and naysayers" have caused them to cancel their events.

Wrong.  The cancellations resulted from the actions of the people involved — who proceeded to promote events, lie about state funding and the governor attending, and scrambled to get tents donated without having a business plan.

Guess what? Questions are good. Questions allow you to consider things that perhaps your group did not consider. I welcome questions. They make my plan better and stronger.

The Songwriter’s Festival was never going to succeed and here’s why:
  • The organizers had no understanding of who their audience was. I asked Janis Moomaw who the audience was  for the Festival, she said anyone who wants to buy a ticket. Wrong answer.
  • Who is your audience?  Are they country music concert goers? What age? Are they songwriters? What are the demographics? Do songwriters have any money to spend, for traveling to Pagosa Springs?
  • The event was planned less than a year in advance by people who have no experience planning events. Hosting events for Durango-based Music in the Mountains counts a little, but the Pavillion group has never tried to do this from the ground up. Call in the experts. Folkwest has been doing it for 16 years — and nobody even talked to them until after the lid blew off the whole thing.
  • The Marketing Plan was ridiculous. Hold an event the weekend after July 4 when the town is already booked solid? Travel around to college towns in Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee in late April to get people to come to an event in less than three months? Target college students? (See bullet point one above. Are they your target audience?)
  • If college students are your target audience then perhaps hosting songwriters Dickey Lee, Pat Alger, Buzz Cason, and Richard Leigh — who are all accomplished, but haven’t written hit songs in 20-30 years, long before most college students were born — isn’t the best plan.
  • Why those three states? Because it’s hot and people will want to come to Pagosa where it’s cooler? That was Janis Moomaw’s answer. Yet I point our fearless leaders back to the visitor study done in 2007 and 2008 and available on the Town Tourism web page: Only 2 percent of visitors to Pagosa come from Louisiana; most come from Texas, Colorado, Arizona, California, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. In fact, we get more visitors from Missouri than from Tennessee or Mississippi. Hmm? Does this make sense? Especially given the dismal conversion rate the community has in converting visitors for a second visit?
  • And Pagosa is not a destination for the under-40 crowd. We have no nightlife!
Just because you have an idea, doesn’t mean it’s a good one. The Pavilion is arguing over who gets to build a 450-seat theater and for what it can be used. I say, take a step back and do the math.

Archuleta County has an average income of $51,058 (much higher than the Town’s average income).  But over 11 percent of the population lives below poverty level. So let’s take them out of the equation — because without subsidy, those people are not going to be able to afford a theater ticket.

That leaves 11,025 people in the county — but oh, wait, over 20 percent of them are under 18. Unless the programming is directly targeted to children and is subsidized, chances are these kids are not going to come to your theater.

That leaves 8,820 as the potential audience for your theater. Now, let’s try and fill your 450 person theater, five nights a week for six months of the year. You need 58,500 butts in seats. All of those people will have to buy 7 tickets in 6 months. Not going to happen. In Fort Collins, the Nonesuch Theater is closing because weekly attendance for their intimate 49 seat theater is less than 100 per week. (Fort Collins population: 138,736 — a mere 11 times larger than Archuleta County.)

Before you jump in with your arguments about "second homeowners and tourists", let’s qualify that by quoting from the Town Tourism study, which states: “Pagosa tends to attract an older, less singles-oriented, and less affluent visitor.”

Will they attend a concert? Sure. Music in the Mountains could probably fill a tent for 3 or 4 nights during the summer. Does that mean we can fill a venue year round? Hardly. The Visitor’s Center gets about 40,000 visitors in year, and many of them are folks merely "passing through".  Not enough to fill those 58,500 seats — and we know that not all of those visitors will buy a ticket to a theatrical or music event.

Wyndham Resorts claims to bring 16,000 families to Pagosa each year and it’s been estimated that the Hot Springs has 150,000 customers a year, but we don’t know if those are unique visitors or repeat customers, nor how many of their customers are local.

But let’s be generous and say that Pagosa attracts 60,000 visitors a year. A theater is not going to get all of those visitors to come even one time to fill the seats.

We need a theater and I am pleased that PSCA is building a black box space. That small theater space will allow for growth and development and audience building over time. A festival tent or permanent amphitheater on Reservoir Hill makes good sense. Music in the Mountains could be held there as well as other events.

If the Pavilion group wants to put their tent on another location, then go for it.  But my best advice is to plan now for Summer 2012. Put together a business and marketing plan that makes sense and includes everyone. Bring the key players together, — including the naysayers and critics — and listen to the questions. Instead of complaining about the critics, open your ears to hear their concerns and turn them into your vocal proponents. Do a better job to not violate Colorado Sunshine Laws. Be open. Be transparent.

And instead of basing your business model on the solely volunteer organization, take a lesson from Music in the Mountains, FolkWest and other highly successful arts organizations — by creating jobs. Figure out how to pay a director even if only part-time. Plan to add jobs; give away scholarships as the organization becomes successful.

Read the studies that the Town and the Chamber and the County have paid good money to produce. The results are valid and can tell you the best kind of events the community can plan to attract more visitors.

Tap into the experts. Utilize the skills of people who live in the area and are well-versed in arts and culture.

Or just keep whining. It’s up to you.

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