Flying High

Running the Cleveland National Air Show is a righteously profitable part-time gig

A couple weeks ago, The Cleveland National Air Show announced its cancellation this year due to the impact of those sequestration budget cuts everyone pretends to vaguely understand. Since 1964, the Air Show has been a family tradition and a thunderous marketing tool for the industries of patriotism on Labor Day weekend, as well as a consistent assault on the eardrums of downtown office dwellers do.

Its executive director Charles Newcomb is also making bank. (More on that shortly.)  

Each year, the event attracts 60,000-100,000 visitors to Burke Lakefront Airport and, according to Air Show Marketing Coordinator Kim Dell, $7.1+ million to the downtown economy ($6.9 million of which, contrary to the claims of certain snarky anti-war fabulists, does not come directly from earplug sales.)  

"Though regrettable, this action is viewed to be in the long term best interest of the Air Show, the City of Cleveland and the valued fans that annually attend the event," said Charles Newcomb in a press release.  

Things already looked pretty dire, entertainment-wise, without the formation-flying Thunderbirds or Blue Angels on the planned roster of attractions. But when budget cuts eliminated the F/A-18 Super Hornet demonstration and the Golden Knight parachute team, Newcomb and Co. decided it just wasn't worth it.

Newcomb, a former Blue Angel himself, said in a phone interview that the gate drops by nearly 22 percent without the jet teams. Without any military aircrafts, the losses would be more dramatic than canceling the show altogether.

In terms of economic losses, the cancellation comes as a major bummer for downtown businesses. City spokeswoman Maureen Harper said that the air show is typically positive for Cleveland as a tourist destination.

"The financial impact will be seen in areas like admissions tax, parking tax and revenue typically generated by tourism -- hotel stays, restaurant visits and visits to entertainment venues," she wrote in an email.

The PD wrote last week about the regional draw and the disappointment of downtown businesses, for whom the air show represents a gold mine, especially from out of town guests.

But despite nostalgia and dismay by longtime fans, some residents are pleased that they won't have to put up with the noisy military aircrafts all weekend long. Others are glad that the "war propaganda" is finally getting the axe. Still others acknowledge that if the government has to cut military funding from somewhere, air shows seem like an appropriate place to start.

"It's an entertainment function," said one caller on WCPN's Reporter's Roundtable Friday morning, "and government shouldn't be involved in entertainment."

But a canceled Air Show provokes some questions. Perhaps most prominently: What the hell will the Air Show staffers do all year?

"An event like that takes months of preparation," Harper said. "Right now, I imagine they're securing funding for 2014. They may even have to secure additional funding, depending on how Federal support shakes out."

The Air Show acknowledged in the press release that planning and preparation would be proceeding for the 2014 show -- with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels!-- and a pre-recorded message at their offices sets the "tentative dates" for that event as Aug. 30-Sep. 1, Labor Day weekend.

Surprise, surprise.

Newcomb said that they'll be "dimming the lights" after April, in an effort to save money. He says that core staff (the department heads and himself) will remain for planning purposes but that they'll be "in a dormant state."

Because the event essentially funds itself, there will be no ticket sales or sponsorships this year to compensate the staff. Newcomb said there's a reserve fund for emergencies like this one (or, notably, for inclement weather) so though they'll be operating at a "reduced level" over the next 16 months, they're "proceeding with caution."

The annual event is produced by Cleveland National Air Show Inc., "a 501(C)4 not-for-profit Ohio Corporation that relies on sponsorship and community support to offset the costs."

In 2011, the costs were about $1.4 million. That included show events, advertising, hospitality, occupancy at their offices on N. Marginal Road to the tune of $190,000, and also CK Newcomb & Associates' executive compensation, which was $253,000 in 2011. Newcomb devoted approximately 25 hours per week, according to his filing.  

The Air Show's tax paperwork at the Foundation Center, where all nonprofits have to register, only goes back to 2004. But since then, Newcomb's compensation was as follows:  

2011:  $253,240

2010: $245,864 + $50,000 bonus = $295,864

2009: $288,703

2008: $256.756

Quite the chunk of change. That's going off a line item on the 990 called "Management and Administration," and it's unclear whether that goes directly to Newcomb or split among the department heads. But the 990 indicates roughly $130,000 in "other salaries" and Newcomb appears to be reporting the compensation personally. In 2010, Newcomb reported $295,864 while working 20 hours per week.

"C.K. Newcomb & Associates is the leading production and marketing company of air shows and aviation events in the United States," according to its website.

Newcomb says his company supplies the department heads to the Air Show, and that right now the Cleveland Air Show is its only major client.

"I'm 69 years old and my career planning air shows is winding down," he said.

He's been there since 1975 and through the years he's managed air shows in Dayton ('96-'03), Detroit ('82-'97), Columbus ('95), Miami ('81-'95), and the the grand opening of the Denver National Airport in 1993.

But other than nebulous event consultation -- "client list not for publication" -- which Newcomb admits is rare, C.K. Newcomb & Associates only works on the Cleveland event.

In other words, C.K. Newcomb & Associates is synonymous with the Cleveland Air Show. Both entities have the same Fax number. The C.K. Newcomb & Associates phone number has no voicemail. The address for C.K. Newcomb & Associates is 1501 N. Marginal Road, Suite 166, the same address (down to the Suite number), as the Cleveland National Air Show.

There's only one thing technically afoot in all this. If Newcomb's an administrative wizard and his experience and expertise within the airshow industries warrant a salary of that size (even when he's working part-time), then fine. It's not like that's taxpayer dollars.

"The Board of Trustees is the Cleveland Air Show" said Newcomb. And they can do as they please, (although the $19 single-day ticket price all of a sudden looks mighty steep.)  

However, if Charles Newcomb is additionally operating C.K. Newcomb & Associates out of the National Air Show offices, including (even minimal) outside event consulting, it seems suspect that the Cleveland Air Show, a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) is paying the rent and the phone bill.  

About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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