Today was a long day at City Hall for the owners of several of Cleveland’s most prominent live music venues — but it ended in victory, or at least a compromise they can live with. Cleveland City Council voted 19-0 to roll back the city’s exceptionally high 8% admissions tax to zero for clubs under 150 capacity and 4% for those under 750. After spending all day at City Hall — first for the morning committee session and later in the afternoon for the full council session — Beachland Ballroom owner Cindy Barber, Happy Dog owner Sean Watterson, Peabody’s owner Chris Zitterbart, and Peabody’s manager Larry Funderburk celebrated at the Summer in the City concert on the Rock Hall plaza.
The issue of the tax has been festering since last summer when several clubs were hit with bills for back taxes, and information began to come out in the media about the steep tax, raised to its current level to help pay the tab for the sports facilities built in the ’90s. With most cities in the region having no admissions tax and others (like Cleveland Heights at 3%) charging less than half Cleveland’s rate, it left the city’s venues at a competitive disadvantage with cities like Columbus (which has no tax) when booking shows.
Last March, Mayor Frank Jackson proposed a rollback of the tax that would only have benefited clubs with a capacity of less than 500. That would have left two of the city’s major concert venues — the Beachland Ballroom and Peabody’s — still dealing with the full tax. That was the initial proposal when the matter was taken up in committee during the morning session.
“We were there from 8 to noon,” says Watterson. “We lobbied hard [to raise the cap].”
By the time the bill, sponsored by council president Martin Sweeney, was introduced to the full council in its afternoon session, the adjustment had been made and was enthusiastically supported by all members of council, says Watterson.
“Everyone was speaking in favor of it,” he says. “[Councilwoman] Dona Brady talked about the jobs we create for musicians.”
Zitterbart adds that the ongoing public conversation and pressure helped move the issue to a resolution.
“The media helped so much, really getting behind us,” he says.
Mayor Jackson’s proposal had also contained a number of items the club owners found unacceptable, like making landlords as well as the business owners liable for unpaid taxes. None of those issues were taken up today, as council passed a straightforward adjustment of the tax rate. Also still unresolved is what will happen with back taxes owed by Peabody’s and the Beachland.