Thursday, August 30, 2007

Harrelson on the Hot Seat

The Friday Morning Group had Cathy Harrelson, candidate for St. Petersburg City Council District 3 on the hot seat last Friday. Cathy has been an investment advisor and financial professional for over twenty-five years. She is also immediate past Chair of the Suncoast Sierra Club. She is running for the City Council seat currently held by Bill Foster, who is leaving due to term limits. So Cathy came to the Friday Morning Group to hear our concerns. She got an earful.

Herb Snitzer, never the shrinking violet, looked at her campaign materials and noticed there was no mention of the arts. Cathy forthrightly explained that to get through the primary, her mail pieces to voters in District 3 had to deal with the issues of top concern to the voters in that district. To her credit, Cathy came equipped with information on the economic value of the arts and indicated that she could make use of that in the general election , but she needed to focus on "front burner" issues for the primary election.

Herb noted how the arts are too often seen as a luxury and thus get the short end of the funding stick, even in good economic times. Cathy agreed that the arts always moved to the front of the chopping block when it is government budget cutting time. Bob Devin Jones volunteered that he would be more than happy to help Cathy understand how to move the arts off the front end of the chopping block.

This lead to a vigorous discussion about how best to do that. I noted that when the City and the County were holding public input budget hearings, the artist community failed to show up and give their input. Bob responded that after all his service on governmental arts committees, that if our elected officials didn't get it by now, they were never going to get it. I pointed out that the real audience for these hearings was not the elected officials on the dais, but the general public watching on TV, or those that would be reading the newspaper accounts of the hearings.

At the end of these discussions, it was apparent to those in attendance that Cathy Harrelson would be an ally to the arts if elected. Carol Dameron suggested that Cathy contact the women in the Stuart Society at the Museum of Fine Arts and seek their support. Herb and Carol also graciously agreed to be hosts for a fund raising event for Cathy.

There was also a discussion about one of my favorite subjects - that the City is the Art rather than St. Petersburg being the "City of the Arts." I gave the group an update on the City Council's recent passage of the new Land Development Regulations (LDRs) for the downtown, completing a seven year effort to update zoning and land usage in the entire city. There are still some issues to be resolved in a "glitch bill" later on this year.

The biggest issue is the zoning for the site of Al Lang Field. Al Lang has carried a commercial zoning designation and that has carried over to the new LDRs. However, with the Devil Rays moving their spring training out of town in 2009, there is significant citizen concern about future uses for that site. Many people feel that the City would be better served by designating the Al Lang site with Park zoning. Others believe that a really special use could be found for the land that would offer unique benefits to the City.

The other big issue to be resolved is historic preservation efforts against the background of downtown redevelopment. The new LDRs provide some incentive to developers for historic preservation. However it is unclear that they are sufficient to actually accomplish much in the way of historic preservation as the incentives currently are written. Stay tuned.

And this week, Friday, August 31st, City Council Member Jamie Bennett (District 5) will be getting in the hot seat. Council Member Bennett is also running for re election this year.

Speaking of elections, there are primary elections in Districts 3 and 5 on September 11. Early voting is already underway. Voter turnout is expected to be dismally low. If you live in these districts and want the voice of the arts community to be heard, please be sure to vote in this important election.

And for some arts news, the Arts Center Member Show opens this Friday August 31st. I hope you will start the day by joining us at the Friday Morning Group. Hope to see you there.

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