The World’s a Stage: The economic impact of performing arts in Southern Utah
According to Danny Stewart, longtime resident of Cedar City, there are two worlds: the one during the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the one during the off-season. Not that it’s ever quiet in Festival City USA, but the only periods of time when you might encounter a traffic jam in this still-rural community are during popular Shakespeare events and then again “when the sheep begin coming off the mountain.”
Stewart is the economic development director for Cedar City, where the sheep parade takes place in late October, a cultural tradition that is not only part of the Livestock & Heritage Festival but a steadfast facet of the local economy. And while sheep production ranks high in Iron County, it’s the other kind of production—the type happening on stage—that is having an enormous impact on the region. “There’s no doubt that during the 50 years that the [Shakespeare] festival has been in Cedar City, it has been a big part of shaping what the community has become,” Stewart says. “Without the festival, we wouldn’t have the service industry—the amenities, lodging and dining we have.”
But it’s not just about more hotels and restaurants. A more enduring change is happening, not only in Cedar City and Iron County, but across Southern Utah. There have been expansions of arts programs, education and facilities, growth in economic diversity, and nationwide recognition as a top destination for tourists, theatre buffs and retirees. How have things changed over the years and what kind of economic impact are the various performing arts actually having?
The main stage
The most current figures show the Utah Shakespeare Festival had a total economic impact of $40 million in 2014, with $18.9 million contributed directly from festival operations, personnel and patron spending. The indirect economic effect totaled $20.6 million with a 2.1 multiplier of $1.10 spent elsewhere in the local economy. The festival generated $12.1 million in non-resident spending, in addition to ticket prices. The festival generated more than $200,000 annually in transient room taxes and created 32 full-time jobs and an additional 350 seasonal positions, totaling more than $4.7 million in salaries and benefits.
An hour south along I-15 is The Tuacahn Center for the Arts, the other Southern Utah performing arts complex credited with being an important economic engine, and while it’s not as old as the Shakespeare festival, it’s no slouch. While a detailed study such as the one conducted for the Shakespeare festival is not available, Tuacahn is the second biggest economic driver in Washington County next to Zion National Park, according to an October 2015 article in St. George News that quoted Tuacahn Executive Director Jeff Fisher. The total economic impact is close to $80 million, with the arts center attracting about 265,000 annually to its shows from the region and surrounding states.
Tuacahn Center for the Arts is Utah’s largest non-profit theatre operation, an attraction nestled in the red rocks adjacent to Snow Canyon State Park in Ivins, right outside St. George. It is comprised of a 42,000-square-foot facility that includes a 1,920-seat outdoor amphitheater, a 328-seat indoor theater, a black box theater, a dance studio, a costume shop and a scene shop.
And in 1999, the Tuacahn High School for the Performing Arts opened, the first public charter school in the state of Utah. The high school has grown from just a handful of eager students to student body of 400.
According to Roxie Sherwin, director of the Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau, the economic impact of Tuacahn is now closer to $85 million per year. “That has grown substantially over the last 20 years,” Sherwin says. “Tuacahn has greatly impacted the summer hotel business, which used to be quite bleak. The success of Tuacahn has spurred an increase in local theater, dance studios and other arts interests.”
Throughout the year, the center keeps visitors coming with “Christmas in the Canyon” and a live Nativity, concerts, a Saturday arts and crafts market, and a gift gallery.
“Tuacahn started out with one show, Utah!, for the first four years,” Sherwin says. “They saw the need to change directions and began doing Broadway musicals. In 2005, the 10th season, Tuacahn obtained the license to produce Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. That opened the door for a long and fruitful relationship with Disney, which has greatly impacted Tuacahn’s success.”
Indeed, what is billed as “Broadway in the Canyon” started the new direction by producing Broadway-tested musicals, a line-up you would not have expected to see in St. George, where 20 years ago the only venue was Dixie State University and the only thing to do on Friday night was drag Main. Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Fiddler on the Roof all enjoyed sold-out crowds.
When Beauty and the Beast opened to a packed theater, that led to productions of Disney’s Aladdin, Mulan and two different seasons of The Little Mermaid, an “onstage spectacle” that featured a 75-foot water curtain to create an undersea effect. Tuacahn is also the main venue in the region for live music and has hosted touring talents including Willie Nelson, Amy Grant and Colby Caillat, to name a few.
While it’s difficult to quantify the precise impact Tuacahn has had on the economic growth in the region, it is certainly a driver and now an integral part of the greater community. Anecdotally, locals say that the dining scene has improved greatly over the past 20 years, whether that has to do with demand from Tuacahn visitors or a nationwide trend toward a more sophisticated palate. Regardless, St. George, previously considered a dining wasteland, now has many restaurants listed on Trip Advisor that bear Certificates of Excellence.
Back up north in Cedar City, having expanded dining options is certainly exciting, but according to Stewart, these eateries are joining other types of businesses to create a thriving new sector in the city, all supported by Utah Shakespeare Festival patrons and activity but specifically due to the completion and placement of the new The Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts.
This complex was completed last July 2016 and is the new home of the festival, located on the campus of Southern Utah University. It was a $39.1 million project that features three theatres, the Southern Utah Museum of Art, plus areas for office, educational, rehearsal and artistic space, all surrounded by sculpture gardens, a seminar grove and a Greenshow performance space.
Stewart points out that the location of the Sorenson Center actually moved the heart of the festival two blocks closer to Main Street. “The effect of this is that new businesses have popped up along this corridor,” he says, including restaurants, galleries and boutiques. One new neighbor is Iron Gate Winery, which opened in 2012 at the Iron Gate Inn Bed and Breakfast, a location it has outgrown. New operations and a tasting room open this spring for festival strollers to pop in for a sip or a bottle. Iron Gate will be neighbors of Centro Woodfired Pizzeria, one of the top-rated restaurants in Utah on Yelp.
Leisurely evening strollers—festival geeks enjoying a show and the nightlife of little Cedar City—might not have been exactly what festival founder Fred C. Adams envisioned. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” says Prospero in The Tempest. Did this include sculpture gardens and wineries? Hard to know. But Adams did see the power of capturing visitors who came to see Zion and other magnificent natural attractions during the daytime and offering them entertainment at night. Why not Shakespeare? When Adams pitched the idea to the Cedar City Council and the chamber of commerce, “it went over like a pregnant pole vaulter,” Adams likes to say.
April 23 marks William Shakespeare’s death at age 52. Four hundred and one years later, Shakespeare festivals take place worldwide and Utah’s is rated among the top in the United States. The first two weeks of Utah’s festival welcomed 3,726 attendees; last year, the audience was 100,000.
“We are a now destination theatre,” says Utah Shakespeare Festival Executive Director R. Scott Phillips, a specific category in the theatre biz that means travelers come to the area to attend multiple shows over many days. In addition, Phillips says many visitors fall in love with the area, and days turn into years and second homes.
“Because of what has grown from the festival, real estate has grown,” Phillips adds, noting that the small university, easy transportation and access to the region, and growing cultural scene are all factors that are tipping points not only for retirees, but for companies looking to relocate.
Economic figures are handy for completing the picture, but don’t discount the opinion of someone like Phillips, who has seen the growth of the festival over 40 years, when he first started with the organization as a 19-year-old marketing intern and was then hired as the first full-time employee as marketing director. “In 1977, our budget was $329,000. We had to convince people to come here!” Phillips laughs. Today’s budget is closer to $7 million, a testament to the fact that “the arts do make a huge impact. People come from all over the world to enjoy the festival experience Cedar City offers.”