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When government competes, we lose

By RICHARD SHAW
Sun Advocate publisher

Last fall when the latest Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out, a theatre owner in Raleigh, N.C., was worried.

Not about how he would accomodate the huge crowds expected, but about unfair competition from a government supported IMAX theater located in the Exploris Museum nearby.

A few years ago, the museum, which had been built for education purposes, was struggling financially. So in 2000 Wake County officials committed almost $12 million to build a theater in an effort to help the struggling museum stay afloat. According to (Raleigh) News Observer, the county also spends about $1 million a year in subsidies to keep the 267 seat theater going.

That apparently didn't bother most people as long as the theater showed special IMAX productions geared to education, the outdoors and travel.

But the decision to run the popular Harry Potter movie on the large screen last fall generated a lot of concern, especially when it was announced it would start showing the movie at the same time as everyone else in the movie business, just after midnight on opening day.

IMAX theater officials at the time claimed that there was no direct competition with private theaters because the admission prices to the IMAX were almost $4.50 more than the standard theater prices.

Despite complaints since that some theaters are losing money to the county-run IMAX, the theater continues to show new movies. A view of the museums website shows that the movie remake of Poseiden is presently running, and the theater will be running a special rendition of the movie Superman Returns when it comes out next week.

I have to wonder how our movie owners here would react if Carbon County suddenly decided to spend money on an IMAX theater at the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum.

Or how about if the college decided to build a big hotel, restaurant and convention center on the campus to attract visitors and students. How would our local lodging and restaurant people feel about that?

Well that very thing has happened near that same IMAX theater at North Carolina State. They are building a conference, lodging and restarant center.

But while these situations involve millions of dollars, there are much smaller examples of this and similar things going on in every state of the union, including Utah.

And that includes the local area too.

This past year the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources sent out a request for proposals and later bids for tour agents and companies to run tours through Range Creek. With the national and international exposure the area has receieved in the last couple of years, there has been great pressure to get people into these public, but sensitive lands, in an organized manner. DWR basically has a mandate to allow people in, but they also must protect what is there.

Actually there have been already been some tours that have taken place by special permit, largely because the DWR didn't have a complete plan for the area. That however has now changed and upwards of five groups have been approved to give tours in the area.

All but one of those outfitters are private companies. The only exception is Carbon County Recreation, an organization supported financially by a number of government agencies in the county, particularly by the county itself.

In the past, Carbon Recreation has filled a void in Range Creek because there was a need for tours and they (and Emery County Recreation) were some of the few entities that could provide those tours. Now however, the playing field has changed. Emery County Recreation withdrew from giving tours, and all that are left besides Carbon Recreation, are private companies.

In this situation, private companies have to pay their own overhead: purchasing vehicles, paying for fuel and other equipment and everything else that goes along with running a tour. Carbon Recreation must do the same thing, but the difference is that they buy everything with taxpayer money and do not have to make a profit to stay in business, so they can charge less for a tour.

Some may see that as a good thing. If you are going on a tour and you have limited funds, it's good to get a lower price. On the other hand, somebody is still paying for that lower price. Once again, directly or indirectly, it is the taxpayer.

Private businesses and citizens who pay their taxes are the only ones that really generate money in our ecomony. Business and people pay taxes; they spend money that is brought in by investment and ingenuity. The non-government tour companies that are involved in providing service in Range Creek will do all of that. They also are gambling with their own money that their business will succeed; something that all businesses face in a capitalist society.

I have heard this issue discussed repeatedly amongst people in the business community in the last couple of weeks, and some e-mails have been exchanged concerning the situation as well.

Legally, it appears that a government agency operating in competition with private business is permittted in this case.

Well I see it this way. Legal may be legal, but what is right is right. And they aren't necessarily the same thing.





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