Wednesday, October 24, 2007

All in the Family?

Last week at the Friday Morning Group we continued our meetings with St. Petersburg City Council candidates. In the hot seat last week was Bill Dudley, candidate for City Council District 3. So far, no blood has been spilled.

This session started off a little differently. Rather than focusing directly on a candidate's feelings about art funding and appreciation of the arts, Bill Dudley was asked why he was running. This is a question that is more typically asked than the kinds of questions we usually ask candidates.

Bill handled this question with aplomb, as he has doubtless been asked it many times before. He related that he felt a calling to serve, and that he has been a public servant his entire adult life, having been a teacher at North East High until his recent retirement. He also described himself as an independent thinker, not endorsed by the Mayor.

Dudley went on to say that the first issue on his agenda was financial. He said people are suffering from taxes being too high and said that he wanted to streamline the way the City does business. He quickly sensed that that message was not being well received by a group that had just seen arts funding in this City cut to the bone due to tax cuts.

He told us that his daughter is a member of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and also a music teacher; that he had fought for arts funding as chair of the art department at North East High. Dudley stressed that he thought the arts funding shortfalls could be met by reducing the number of high paid city management employees. Among those specifically mentioned for dismissal was the Deputy Mayor for Midtown Development and the Mayor's education initiative liaison.

Bill also suggested that we aren't being creative enough in seeking public / private partnerships for arts funding. He gave one example of a former student of his who now has a very successful business here in town. This person has never been asked to help fund the arts in the community.

We also briefly discussed the future of Al Lang Stadium (after the Devi Rays stop holding their Spring Training games there next year) and other issues relating to development. The new Land Development Regulations (LDRs) the city has just implemented created a new zoning district called Downtown - park. The Al Lang stadium site was not given this zoning designation. Many people are concerned that this would leave the site open fro redevelopment after the Devi Rays cease Spring Training there. Consensus was that the land needed to be protected as a park. Bill Dudley suggested that development be encouraged to spread west out the Central Avenue corridor.

One other area briefly touched on was the tax structure in the state and the country. Bill Dudley indicated he was an advocate of the so called "Fair or flat tax" idea which as I understand it is some variation of a national sales tax.

As I said at the beginning, no blood was shed and Mr. Dudley made it safely through his encounter with the Friday Morning Group. I hope the next politician is similarly fortunate. I know that we will all look forward to seeing you at the next meeting of the Friday Morning Group.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Economic Benefits or Quality of Life?

That was one of the questions that came up last Friday at the Friday Morning Group. We had Ed Montanari, candidate for St. Pete City Council District 3 in the hot seat.

To his credit, Ed came in reasonably well prepared. He was quite familiar with the economic benefits the arts have provided to this state, and particularly to our community. While that is something most of us are very well aware of, not that many political candidates get that fact. Unless, of course, we had beaten it into them.

Of course we talked about the art funding situation given the city's current budget constraints. Ed acknowledged that budget issues were the big issue for the City Council right now. Ed described a strategic view of the issue. He pledged to work to increase the City's tax base as a way to provide more revenue for arts funding for the City. He is looking forward to projects like the Chihuli museum creating more jobs. Also he wants to work with the City's Economic Development department to get some of the City's underutilized assets up to their full potential.

In that regard, one of our old friendly discussion areas came up - the Manhattan Casino. We kicked around ideas for the Manhattan Casino over four years ago at the Friday Morning Group. And still the building sits empty.

All that talk of economic development finally was a bit much for one of our members. She reminded us all that she is involved in and enjoys the arts for the quality of life that they bring to her and to all of us. The arts always make us richer. And it isn't always about the money.

We had a special drop in guest last Friday morning as well. St. Petersburg City Council Member Herb Polson dropped in at the beginning of the meeting. He wanted to let us know that the City is going to be updating its Cultural Plan. A presentation on the update is to be made to the Council's Policy and Planning Committee this Thursday, October 11, at 9:30 AM. The meeting will be at City Hall in the Community Resource Room. Herb urged anyone interested in the City's Cultural Plan to show up for this meeting. After all, it is the Cultural Plan. Seems like artists should have some input.

We extend our thanks to Herb Polson and also for Ed Montanari for sharing their Friday Morning with us. We hope you will do the same next Friday Morning.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Advocating for the Arts

St. Petersburg City Council Member Jeff Danner joined us last Friday morning at the Friday Morning Group. Jeff came in begging off speaking after using up his voice at the City Council workshop the day before. But some how he hung in there and filled us in on what is happening with the allocation of city funds to the arts, and some future plans as well.

Jeff Danner is the City Council member assigned to the the City's Arts Advisory Committee. In that post, Jeff worked with that Committee to present a coherent plan to the City Council for the allocation of the funds the City did manage to find for the arts and social services. Essentially the plan was to use last year's split of funding to arts organizations and social service agencies to split this year's available funds between the two. That ratio last year was approximately 60% to social service agencies and 40% to arts organizations. That concept to split this year's available funds was adopted by City Council at their workshop last Wednesday.

The next step was to get the Council to agree to let the Arts Advisory Committee plan to allocate that 40% share of funds amongst arts organizations. Jeff was successful in getting Council to agree to that proposal as well. This process will be occurring sometime later this month. The amount to be split amongst the organizations is $175 thousand. Considering that earlier this year the amount was going to be zero, that is something, anyway.

So that's the story of arts funding for this year. However, it pretty much leaves arts organizations in a pickle going forward given the budget pressures cities and counties are currently under. To alleviate that strain, Jeff told us about a couple of possibilities that are being looked at to provide a dedicated funding source for the arts.

The first of these involves some way of charging groups that use city parks for events such as concerts, for example, to pay the City for the use of the park. Currently these organizations pay for the cost of city services provided to their event, but they do not pay for the actual use of the park itself. The idea is that that money would then be used to fund arts and cultural organizations. This proposal is currently being examined by city staff.

The second idea is to establish a trust fund for arts funding. One of the ideas being considered is pretty interesting. The city has a pot of money that it received for the sale of City owned property in Weeki Wachie. The sale of this property had to be approved by voter referendum. As part of that referendum, the money from the sale was set aside in a separate fund. The income of the fund is to be used for recreational and cultural uses. The current idea being floated is that income from the Weeki Wachie fund could be used to establish a trust fund for arts funding. Stay tuned.

Jeff was asked what he thought would be the best thing that arts supporters could do to impress upon City leaders the value of supporting the arts. Jeff suggested a couple of things. One would be to make sure that the Mayor and Council members are invited to arts openings and other events so they will be reminded of the vibrancy and the importance of the arts to our community. The other idea is to come to City Council meetings and speak at Open Forum to extend those invitations and to talk to Council Members about arts events in the City. the advantage of that approach is that anyone watching the Council meeting on TV will hear about these events. Maybe they will attend themselves. Or maybe they would become more aware of the value of arts to our community. A couple of good ideas, in my opinion.

I want to extend my personal thanks to Jeff for coming to the Friday Morning Group last week; and despite having nearly lost his voice fighting for the arts the day before, speaking at length with us about the state of the arts in St. Petersburg.

And I want to extend to each of you my wish to see you this Friday.