Air show operates at loss of $75,000

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By Johnathan Ryan

While the Palmetto Thunder Air Show may have provided satisfying entertainment to many at the Lancaster County Airport on May 17 and 18, it didn't bring in the money organizers had hoped.

In fact, it operated at a deficit of $75,000.

Most of that came from a $60,000 shortfall in expected ticket revenue, with $64,000 coming in versus the $120,000 to $125,000 projected. The cost of fuel at the airport was also $15,000 more than expected, largely due to the increased cost of fuel since the air show budget was created.

Frank Keel, executive director of See Lancaster, one of the principal organizers of the show, said expectations for the number of people who would attend the show may have been too high, especially considering the slow economic times. But he said another problem may have contributed to the shortfall in ticket sales.

"From what we're hearing, there was stuff going on at the gate like, 'I am a volunteer, or I am the family of such and such volunteer or I am with the city or county,' " Keel said. "And some workers at the gate may have been, 'Well, just go on through.'"

Organizers are still trying to determine whether those reports are true, Keel said.

Keel said based on ticket revenue, it can be reasonably concluded that there were 6,000 to 7,000 paid spectators. But many more spectators were thought to have been there, according to See Lancaster's and Lancaster Tours' assessments.

Such assessments put spectator total between 11,000 and 12,000 across the two days, which should have brought in much more than $64,000 in ticket revenue.

County to help with shortfall

Lancaster County Council voted 5-1 last week to fund the air show's $75,000 revenue shortfall with money from the county's $15.6 million in savings.

The money goes to See Lancaster, which promotes tourism in the county, and it will be deducted from the group's budget in $15,000 increments over each of the next five years.

"From the county's perspective, we're looking at it as a kind of advance," said County Administrator Steve Willis, explaining it will be noted as an advance in accommodations tax revenue for See Lancaster.

Keel noted that accommodations tax revenue can only be used for tourism development, not any of the county's other needs. With it going toward the air show, it's fulfilling its legitimate purpose, he said.

Councilman Wayne Kersey dissented on the funding request, and Councilman Bryan Vaughn was absent from the meeting last week.

Kersey said he does not approve of county savings being allocated in such a way, when only one man, Keel, appeared before council asking for the money with no documentation.

"I am disappointed that these educated council people would just hand out money under these circumstances," Kersey said.

Economic impact

Keel said organizers are working to acquire actual numbers on local economic impact, but it appears that some local restaurants, such as Applebee's and Los Marachis, were well supported over the weekend of the air show. The city's motels reaped more than $20,000 as a result of the air show, he said.

"The county can start getting some of the money back right there," Keel said.

One benefit to the local area was the exposure out-of-towners had to Lancaster County.

Based on a ZIP code survey of where spectators live, the farthest away someone came for the air show was Michigan. Overall, there was a good number of spectators who call Charlotte or Rock Hill home, Keel said.

"Those people could have been coming here for the first time, and while they may have only seen a small part of the county, it's a start," Keel said.

Keel and Willis said that a good number of people have told them that the many aviation and aerobatic acts lived up to their entertainment expectations. There have been many compliments from the community, they said.

"From what we are hearing, it was great for the community and they're asking us to do it again next year," Keel said. "We just wished it had lived up to financial expectations."

Contact reporter Johnathan Ryan at jryan@thelancasternews.com or (803) 416-8416