Light show falters financially Visitors, profits down in second year of holiday fund-raiser

Bad weather is blamed

Organizers defend investment in drive-through display

January 28, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Howard County General Hospital's much ballyhooed "Symphony of Lights" -- the 47-night light show billed as the hospital's biggest fund-raiser -- is threatening to become a financial flop.

Having just completed its second year, the Christmas-time event drew fewer paying visitors and sharply reduced profits from its first year -- despite increased investment.

By the hospital's accounting, this season's show netted about $40,000, down from about $100,000 last year.

Without cash donations from local corporations -- totaling approximately $68,000 -- it would have lost about $28,000.

In essence, the show's charitable cause -- the hospital's maternal and child-health services -- would have been better off if the show had not been held and this year's donations had been given directly to the hospital.

This troubled financial situation came about even after the show's organizers invested an additional $51,000 this year -- beyond its planned cost -- to expand the display with new features to gain more public interest.

Organizers blame the downturn in profits this year on bad weather and increased competition from similar shows in the region. They say they are not discouraged.

"We're not looking at this as just a two-year event," said David M. Abramson, a Columbia lawyer and chairman of the hospital board of trustees. "It's like paying a mortgage on a house. We're building up ownership of these lights, and in time, assuming the program continues, we'll see a significant increase in funds.

"To simply look at just the dollars in and the dollars out is not the only bottom line," said Mr. Abramson, who came up with the idea for the fund-raiser. "It accomplished our objective of raising money for the hospital and allowed us to give back to our community at the holiday season."

"Symphony of Lights" is a 1.4-mile, drive-through light display held at Columbia's Symphony Woods, land owned by the Rouse Co. and the Columbia Association. This year's show ran from Nov. 20 through Jan. 7. Each visiting car paid $12.

The 25-minute, night-time tour included colored-light displays of leaping reindeer, toy soldiers shooting cannons and an animated "Toyland" where a giant rocking horse, jack-in-the-box and gingerbread house led to Santa Claus and his sleigh.

The hospital bought the show in 1994 for $300,000 from Mosca Design in Raleigh, N.C., to be repaid over three years at about $100,000 per year, the firm's owner, George Mosca, said.

A fourth year and additional displays were subsequently added to the contract at a cost of another $100,000, he said. The hospital will own the equipment after the fourth payment, in 1997.

In addition, according to hospital records, Mosca has charged the hospital $100,000 a year for installing and storing the display.

The show's first year -- Christmas 1994 -- worked out well for the hospital, which earned about $100,000 for its Maternal Child Health Services and Programs, said Debbie Daskaloff, the hospital's corporate projects administrator and the show's director.

"We were amazed the show did that well the first year," she said. "It was new to this area and it was unknown." That success -- and the prospect of increased competition -- prompted an additional $51,000 investment this year for six new exhibits.

But attendance dropped from 43,410 vehicles in 1994-1995 to 33,635 vehicles in 1995-1996, and the show's net profit fell from about $100,000 to about $40,000, Ms. Daskaloff said.

But the hospital's success at drawing corporate cash donations dramatically improved in the show's second year. Cash donations the first year were about $4,000, Ms. Daskaloff said. The second year, they rose to about 15 percent of the show's total revenues of $454,000, she said, or about $68,000.

Ryland Group gave about $25,000 to support the show, while the Apple Ford dealership gave $10,000, said spokesmen at each of those companies. NationsBank gave $30,000 to the hospital, but a spokesman declined to detail how much of that went to the light show.

More than 20 other corporate sponsors gave cash or in-kind contributions, including The Baltimore Sun, which contributed free advertising.

Without these donations, according to figures provided by Ms. Daskaloff, the show would have finished in the red.

"The hospital is an entity within the county that sooner or later everybody's going to have to visit. Anything we can do to help them is well worth it," said George Doetsch, president of Apple Ford in Columbia.

But the financial benefit to the hospital itself from the 47-night light show did not come close to matching that of a one-day golf tournament last June -- an event that earned $65,000 for the hospital, Ms. Daskaloff said.

Still, Ms. Daskaloff and Mr. Abramson refer to the light show as the hospital's single biggest fund-raiser.

Mr. Abramson said he proposed the fund-raiser after seeing one of Mosca's displays in 1993 at a city park in Newport News, Va. His wife, Lynn, suggested Symphony Woods as the site of the display, he said.

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