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St. Augustine's musical money pit

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Updated: 8/27/2013 11:11 pm
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- St. Johns County leaders have already decided they're not going to raise taxes in the upcoming year, but how they will spend the money in the general fund is still up for debate.

Commissioner Bill McClure is asking taxpayers to weigh in on county-run services and venues that are currently losing money, including the popular St. Augustine Amphitheatre. The venue hosts nearly 84,000 visitors each year, and was just named one of the top 50 amphitheatres in the world, but has been unable to turn a profit due to debt since the county took over in 2007.

"That's surprising to most people I talk to because most of the shows, you're looking around at a full venue," said McClure. "I go there all the time myself."

Despite nearly $250,000 in credit from the Tourism Development Council, the county-run amphitheatre will lose $80,000 this year. That's down from $544,000 in 2009, which is a notable improvement, says McClure, but he believes the county has more important infrastructure needs.

"I think we have a professional duty to look at leasing it or hiring a professional company to give us some guarantees so we wouldn't lose money."

Over the past few weeks, McClure has received feedback from hundreds of taxpayers, and nearly 70 percent tell him the amphitheatre should stay in the control of the taxpayers, including Rich Loud.

"They host a lot of good shows. People come here to look at these acts and they're spending a couple days here in town. Right now, management is bringing in the right crowd."

Loud worries what would happen if taxpayers give control to a private company.

"We'd probably see more young people, crazy people, you know? You don't know what acts they'll bring in."

General Manager Ryan Murphy tells Action News that his staff has been working smarter and enforcing better business practices to monitor revenue and expenditures, since taking over their own budget from the Department of Parks and Recreation almost three years ago. McClure says that effort deserves credit, but still thinks venues and services that lose taxpayer money need to be carefully reviewed in the upcoming budget.

"Does that mean that somebody might lost their job? Maybe. But I work for the taxpayers of St. Johns County and I always remember that. I think it's important that we throw that out there and at least start the conversation."

McClure says if the county continues to operate the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, management may need to consider expanding or finding a sponsor to help cover any losses. Selling the venue is not an option because it is located on state-owned property.

The public is invited to share their comments with county commissioners at a budget hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 3.
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