Concerns dim glow of light display Competing shows put pressure on benefit

November 24, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth and Erin Texeira | Dana Hedgpeth and Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

The Symphony of Lights, Howard County General Hospital's biggest annual fund-raiser, opens this week with the promise of new attractions and continued financial pressures from competing attractions in the area.

The 1.5-mile, drive-through holiday light show also opens amid widespread rumors that the nonprofit hospital is for sale.

The rumors apparently led the hospital's president, Victor A. Broccolino, to announce -- without prompting -- at a recent staff meeting about unrelated matters that the Columbia hospital is not negotiating a sale.

At the same meeting, however, Broccolino acknowledged that the hospital was a ripe takeover target, several hospital staff members who attended said. Nationally, the health-care industry is in an era of rapid consolidation, including a wave of purchases of similar community hospitals by for-profit chains.

In an interview with The Sun last week, Broccolino would say only that "there is nothing to report. The hospital is not up for sale."

Money for health services

The 42-day light show -- which opens tomorrow in Columbia Town Center's Symphony Woods after a 5-kilometer run today -- is intended to raise money for the hospital's maternal and child health services.

Now in its third year, the nighttime display of tens of thousands of lights raised a total of about $138,000 its first two years, including cash contributions from corporate sponsors.

But the number of vehicles driving through the 20-minute-long show -- at $12 each -- declined dramatically, from 43,410 vehicles the first year to 33,635 vehicles last year.

Hospital organizers blamed the drop in attendance last year on wintry weather and increased competition from similar shows in the area.

Light displays have become popular holiday attractions across the country. The Baltimore-Washington area has about eight such displays, including ones at the Baltimore Zoo and in Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

"More and more people are realizing light shows are a festive way to kick off the holiday season and generate revenue," said Thomas Brady, owner of Thomas Brady & Associated Artists, a Stevensville business that designs light shows.

The decline in traffic and additional investment in the Columbia show last year led to a sharp slide in proceeds for the hospital after expenses, from about $99,000 the first year to about $38,000 last year.

Contributions dispute

In January, Debbie Daskaloff, the hospital's corporate projects administrator, told The Sun that more than 15 percent of the show's total revenue, or more than $60,000, came from cash contributions from its sponsors last year.

That means the light show would have lost more than $20,000 last year without its corporate contributors. It also means that if the sponsors had given their contributions directly to the hospital instead of to the light show, more money would have been raised for maternal and child health services.

Last week, hospital spokesman John Walker disputed the accuracy of the 15 percent ratio of cash contributions to total revenue provided by Daskaloff in January. But he refused to provide another figure for the show's total cash contributions.

Walker, Daskaloff and the show's steering committee have declined repeated requests by The Sun in recent weeks for interviews to discuss the show's financial health. Instead, Daskaloff provided a summary last week of the show's overall revenue, expenses and profit for each of the last two years within a longer written statement about the light show.

That summary did not include a total for the cash contributions received by the charity. "Due to the proprietary nature of the event and our sponsor relationships, it is not appropriate for the Hospital to release any additional detailed financial information," Daskaloff wrote.

Cash contributions last year included $25,000 from the Ryland Group and $10,000 from Columbia's Apple Ford, spokesmen for those companies told The Sun in January.

Ryland and Apple Ford again are listed as "major sponsors" of the event this year, along with NationsBank, the Rouse Co., Patuxent Publishing Co., WPOC radio and WBFF-TV. The Sun is a lesser sponsor, contributing advertising space.

Rising competition

Organizers of other light shows throughout the Baltimore area say that rising competition from so many similar shows has made it tough for them to profit.

For most shows -- which tend to cost at least $250,000 to get started -- the profits aren't seen for at least three years, organizers say. And new investments in new displays are needed every year to keep visitors coming back.

Baltimore County officials estimate that their show netted $40,000 last year for county recreation services, not including donations from sponsors. To compete this year, they have lowered their fee from $12 to $10.

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