RPC committed to being inclusive; groups file countering petitions about programming

December 30, 2022 | 12:10 am

Updated December 29, 2022 | 10:02 pm

Under Executive Director Rich Jorn, the RiverPark Center has placed an emphasis on diversity and inclusivity when planning their events — and for the past year that’s included hosting multiple drag shows. A group of citizens created a petition and is asking for the RPC to cancel those shows, saying such events should not be hosted by a place funded in part by taxpayer dollars. A group supporting the LBGTQ community created a counter-petition, saying they also pay taxes so their voices should also be heard, adding that the venue offers a safe haven as a space to connect people of all backgrounds through diverse programming.

Editor’s note: Owensboro Times conducted phone and email interviews over the past few weeks to obtain information and responses. Scott McCain, chair of the RiverPark Board of Directors, was interviewed via email. Phone interviews were conducted with Jorn, along with Jerry Chapman (on behalf of the “Citizens for Decency” group asking for the drag shows to be stopped) and Jordan-Blake Key (on behalf of the LGBTQ community and allies).

McCain said drag shows have taken place one per month for the last year, and specifically in their smaller venue, a 21+ bar called the GhostLight Lounge off the Atmos Courtyard. However, that venue offers many other events as well. 

“We also host karaoke, comedy and other forms of entertainment in that space, as well as small rentals. These drag shows are not taking place on the Cannon Hall stage within the main Riverpark Center facility,” McCain said.

The initial online petition was filed in June after the RiverPark Center hosted some Pride events, one of which was a drag show. That petition, created by Chapman, said the group’s supporters “object to our tax dollars being used to fund any organization that does not respect the reputation of our city or the values of its citizens.”

Chapman said the petition was “one of many” that had been created. While the petitions call the drag shows obscene and offensive, Chapman said the group’s issue is with how tax dollars are being spent. 

“Our only concern is that these shows are occurring in a facility that is funded by our tax dollars. If they want to go to a private business and do these things, we won’t say a word. But they cannot take our tax dollars and fund these shows,” Chapman said.

Addressing the issue of local public funding, McCain said, “This is not a taxpayer issue. We are grateful for the operating support we receive from City Hall and Fiscal Court. However, their contributions are 7% of our annual $2.65M budget. That funding, by the way, is not guaranteed and subject to annual approval by the City Commission and Fiscal Court. Donors, ticket sales, rental and investment incomes, grant funding, education programs, concessions, etc. make up the other 93% of our annual budgeted revenues. In addition, while the City is the fee simple owner of the RiverPark facilities, RPC is a tenant under a very long-term Management and Lease (with option to purchase) Agreement with the City whereby RPC pays for all the facility maintenance and capital expenditure costs, both interior and exterior. The City and therefore taxpayers are not obligated to pay those costs. Note, the City and the County both have a representative on the RPC Board of Directors.”

Jorn added, “If it’s a standpoint where you say, ‘because you’re providing something for the LGBTQ+ community, they should withhold public funding,’ I think probably the appropriate thing is you should pay extra taxes so the LGBTQ+ community no longer has to pay taxes.”

City Manager Nate Pagan briefly noted earlier this month that the City of Owensboro has not considered ending funding or lowering the allocation for the RiverPark Center due to the concerns. He added the City makes no decisions in the programming that occurs at the RPC.

Key said that the LGBTQ community and supporters also pay taxes, so they should get a say in the programming at the RPC.

“I think that we all have a stake in that, and I don’t feel like any one voice — ours or theirs — should overshadow the other,” Key said. “And I believe that RiverPark does make programming that reflects the values that these people specifically have, and I think it’s also appropriate that a publicly funded organization should also share our values as well. I think that they do a good job of that balance.”

Finding that balance is a primary focus for the Riverpark Center, according to McCain.

“Rich was hired in late 2019 with a directive from the Board to expand, increase, and improve programming at RPC, and he has done exactly that while faced with the adversity brought on by the COVID pandemic which he had no control over. RPC continues to be ‘on Mission’ with it’s DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives; while not all things for all people, we intend to be something for everybody. We are for everyone in some capacity,” McCain said. “We owe it to the community, which is diverse itself and growing more so every day. There is no room or patience for hate, racism, marginalization, anger etc. at Riverpark Center.”

Chapman said a drag show “is not entertainment,” but wanted to be clear about why they are asking for the cancellation of such shows.

“This is not about hating any one particular group. This is not that,” he said. “This is about our tax dollars. This is about protecting our children and our families.”

Chapman also said that 43 faith and civic leaders signed a letter with their concerns and sent it to the RPC board. He added that he’s reached out twice to the RPC board with no response, and “won’t reach out a third.” He declined to say what that meant or what the next step might be at this time.

However, McCain acknowledged receiving communications from Chapman and said they did send a response.

“The Board is well aware of the efforts and position of Mr. Chapman and his Citizens for Decency Group,” McCain said. “He’s made sure of that through various channels of communication. We have documentation in writing where we responded to him in a very timely manner, offered him an opportunity and he then responded in writing and declined our offer. So he is not presenting the facts when he says he got no response.”

McCain further said, “While we appreciate, encourage, and take seriously feedback from the community on how RiverPark can be better and serve all our stakeholders and patrons, at the end of the day we are going to make every effort to do the next right thing and protect our character and integrity and preserve our mission. We understand our responsibility and don’t mind being held accountable, but we won’t be swayed from our mission and programming by a small minority of non-like minded individuals. Basically, if you don’t like something, don’t show up. Pick something you do like and be a part of where ‘Memories Are Made at RPC.’  That’s life, we all have choices to make.”

Jorn similarly said while he listens to all the feedback, he’s committed to offering a diverse lineup. That includes everything from traditional Christmas plays to karaoke nights and covers themes from drama to comedy. It also includes drag shows.

“I’m here to provide entertainment for everybody,” he said. “I just want everybody to be able to see a show and have something that they like. We’re not the ones dividing people. We’re not here to stop people from wanting to enjoy what they like.”

Key said it’s vital for a venue such as the RiverPark Center to offer a space where LGBTQ people and their allies can have fun and feel safe.

“Theatre organizations and performing arts organizations across the country have been making this move towards diversity, equity, and inclusion,” he said. “And it’s showing to me that both the RiverPark and Owensboro are ready to move along with that as well, and that our community is calling for that.”

McCain expanded on those sentiments, saying “it is important to note the impact and influence of the LGBTQ community within the theatre and performing arts industry nationwide that are acting and performing on the Cannon Hall stage from time to time, that our patrons are buying tickets and are coming to see and be entertained.”

McCain also said, “Drag shows are typically associated with the LGBTQ+ community and a form of entertainment for that constituency. Although, there are straight singles and couples that attend these shows as well.”

Jorn further said that theatre offers a place for people from all walks of life to come together.

“Art is what gives us our humanity,” Jorn said. “It’s a celebration of us as human beings. It’s our emotions. We go into a theatre as individuals and then for that moment — whether it’s people wearing outrageous costumes and wigs and makeup and singing or lip-synching to their favorite song or if it’s a symphony or a play or a TED talk — in that moment of live entertainment we become one community. … I’m an advocate for that and everywhere I go that’s what I’m going to push for.”

December 30, 2022 | 12:10 am

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