Oregon Shakespeare Festival Pulls Plug

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Pulls Plug

Et tu Brute’?

By Ashland Confidential

for The Ashland Chronicle

(Ashland, OR)   It hasn’t been a good year for the City of Ashland.

The novel coronavirus shut everything down just as tourist season began.

The latest blow was an announcement from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival that it will not open until September, six months from now, reducing their schedule by more than half. They laid off 80% of their staff.

It’s unclear when the governor’s ban on events and closure of bars and restaurants will lift but if it’s prior to September, I imagine the hungry downtown businesses will emerge from the shuttered months hoping to make some money and save their businesses. If they do not have their anchor tourism attraction, OSF,  that’s likely to make a tough situation much tougher.

For the City of Ashland itself, it’s a disaster.  “With the city essentially shut down and without transient occupancy tax or food and beverage taxes the city loses $500,000 a month in revenue, or $16,700 a day roughly.” said Shawn Moran of Ashland Citizens for Economic Sustainability (ACES). “It’s scary if OSF is shut down for six months.”

Of course who can be certain what is right action in a pandemic? Nothing like this has happened since the so called “Spanish Flu” in 1918. I can understand being cautious.

Jackson County has four confirmed cases of the coronavirus, as of this writing, and there are 98 in Oregon.

But I cannot help but feel as if the decision OSF made to close for six months was made without the understanding and input of the thousands of people affected by it. City council did not weigh in, and from what I have been told businesses did not either.

Yet, we’re deeply affected and invested.

The city owns the property. We, the residents of Ashland, give it to OSF and in return they produce good plays that draw tourists. Seems fair, until it’s not. If OSF is going to make a major decision that involves less than half a season, that needs to be more of a discussion. They cancelled shows and moved them during a smoke event without much consultation either. I was there to hear their decision but not be asked about it.

While OSF’s presence is still very much wanted and needed, this closure has me wondering.

Should the city consider renting the theaters to other artists for the winter months? Imagine seeing a fabulous winter play, dance performance or concert by a major artist or a cool Oregon band like “Portugal, the Man” under a clear, cool night sky near the town’s twinkling lights.

This could make us a year around destination and keep locals employed.

Nothing will be the same when this pandemic is over. The assumptions we once made about tourism and the economy may no longer hold true. Estimates are that we’ll see 30% unemployment rates when we’re finally able to venture out again.  That means we’ll need to consider all options in bringing Ashland back to life. We’ll need to consider ways of attracting non tourist living wage jobs, encouraging innovation and being more aggressive when it comes to attracting visitors all year. We have some expert marketers in this community and brilliant business people as well as artists just waiting for a chance to show us what’s possible.

Maybe this is an opportunity to open ourselves up to new opportunities. What other path do we have?