SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — As Theatre By The Sea prepares for a scaled-down season, many area business representatives expect some ripple effects on the local economy.
The million-dollar question, they said, is how much will be lost without the thousands of people attending performances during the spring, summer and early fall who patronize local inns, bed-and-breakfasts, gas stations, motels and restaurants.
“I cannot judge that impact on tourism, but I know it’s there,” Joseph Viele, executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, told The Independent in an interview this week.
Last week, the theater announced the cancellation of its 2021 season, which they blamed on the state’s social distancing guidelines and on people’s tepid reactions to gathering in groups. The state is planning on lifting its distancing guidelines in late May, but that did not save the theater’s season.
These and other factors made difficult the prospect of filling the 500-seat theater and getting performance licenses soon enough, said theater owner Bill Hanney. However, Hanney said he plans to host some concerts this summer, such as a Broadway song revue.
The effects of the decision to cancel the award-winning plays reach into many other businesses in Southern Rhode Island, said Levon Kasparian, owner of the nearby 1898 late-Victorian style Admiral Dewey Inn.
“This theater plays a much large role than you might think,” he said. “If you think about it, they have 500 seats, have about 8 shows a week, you’ve got about 4,000 people coming into the area. Multiply that times the 16 weeks of the tourist season.”
Kasparian said families of actors performing in the theater often stay at his inn, as well as actors with their friends booking a room for a night or weekend. The theater, as part of its contract with actors, provides housing on theater property.
“With things happening at the theater like this, it’s a piece of the puzzle that can affect other places like the Oceanmist and the Matunuck Oyster Bar,” he added about two nearby restaurants.
Perry Raso, owner of the popular oyster bar, agreed. So, too, did Kevin Finnegan, owner of the Oceanmist.
“Absolutely, it will affect things. People make reservations here before going to see a show there,” he said, describing the old barn theater as a unique attraction in an often sought-after tourist destination for state residents as well as many from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Finnegan said, “All the business down here in Matunuck village rely on each other. I will see people – a few every year – who come in all dressed up for what looks like a drink before or after going to the theater.”
Viele offered that if the summer tourist season rebounds in ways stronger than last year – when it saw some surges after temporary declines in coronavirus infections – the loss of spending by theatergoers may not hit as hard.
“Perhaps the influx of more people will off-set the loss of the theater, but it all will depend on people’s willingness to go out in public,” he said.
This ripple effect on area businesses became clear in New York City last year.
From restaurants to stores, hotels and parking garages, Broadway fuels the surrounding businesses in midtown, not to mention a good portion of tourism for New York City. But with the curtains down until at least next year, many who work in Broadway adjacent places are just scraping by, The New York Spectrum reported last summer.
For his part, theater owner Hanney said the COVID-19 vaccine provided hope for that scenario to develop, but it has not occurred as quickly as he wanted.
“I cannot operate the theater on half its capacity. I need to be able to open with the potential to fill the 500 seats in the theater,” he said. He also has acknowledged that his decision can hurt other business and theater officials.
Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce, agreed that restaurants will take the biggest hit from the theater canceling a robust summer season. However, she said, theater management also has an opportunity to recover from the losses.
“The restaurant at Theater by the Sea will obviously suffer,” she said. “However, with the Small Business Administration Shuttered Venue Grant, Restaurant Revitalization Grant, and the Rhode Island Small Business Relief Grant, the restaurant has opportunities to recoup any losses during their time of closure.”
The theater draws people, such as Viele’s accountant who lives in Warwick, to the area.
“She would go to Theater by the Sea, drive down here and would make a night out of it by going to dinner somewhere around here before the show,” he said.
Kasparian from the Admiral Dewey Inn said some tourists coming for a weekend would include a theater show on their to-do list.
“I’m not saying that the theater took up a huge part of my business, but it was in the single digits,” he said. Other area business owners agreed, relying on estimates from casual conversations with diners about the reasons they came to dinner.
Viele, accenting the point that the impact has never actually been measured, noted the large number of people who attend shows. Whether in the area for a day or a weekend, theater customers often patronize other businesses, too, such as gas stations, convenience stores and even local retailers, he said.
In West Kingston, at the Courthouse Center of the Arts, Mariann Almonte said she hopes some of the theater’s customers – feeling a loss of theater entertainment – may come take in a concert at her venue.
“We may get some people who haven’t been here in years, or have ever been,” said the executive director. Her concert entertainment venue, which was converted from a historic jail and courthouse, has a full schedule planned through the fall.
“If we get one new customer for it, I’d be happy. I think we can. We can share,” she said with a laugh.