St. Pete candidates' ideas on arts funding varied

09/11/13 Janelle Irwin
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Candidates for offices in St. Petersburg have varied ideas on how to increase funding for arts in the community. The two mayoral candidates and all eight people running for city council tried to woo arts enthusiasts with their ideas during a forum at Studio 620 in downtown Wednesday. Incumbent Mayor Bill Foster said he’s been trying to convince council to dip into a $15 million fund from the sale of land near Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County.

“We knew that it was for Parks and Recreation programs and things like that, but only a portion of that was encumbered by that commitment and I’ve always said, I love dog parks and I love skate parks – I don’t skate and you don’t want me to do that – but, I love skate parks and I love water features and things like that. But, you know what? Not everybody skates and not everybody has a dog; everybody loves the arts, especially if we do our job.”

But Foster’s opponent in the November municipal election, Rick Kriseman, argued even though using those funds is an option the Mayor hasn’t reflected a commitment to funding the arts in his yearly budget proposals.

“Budgets reflect what your values are, they reflect what your priorities are and they reflect who you want to be as a community. So, anytime you’re putting a budget together, you have to take that into consideration and that’s the document that really reflects what you stand for. So, if you don’t have that money funded. If you don’t find the revenue and you don’t put it in the budget, then obviously it isn’t a priority.”

St. Petersburg used to give $400,000 to various arts groups in the city, but cut that to $175,000. And in 2011, Pinellas County Commissioners cut a $600,000 arts endowment program. District 6 incumbent Karl Nurse is trying to get the city to more aggressively invest a portion of its reserves in things like utilities that carry little risk. He estimates the dividends could offer anywhere between $5 and $25 million depending on how much money the city moved. He said the city created a policy to only invest funds in no-risk funds after a couple of bad investments.

“As government typically does, we overreacted and said, OK, we won’t do crazy investments at the most extreme risk end, so we’ll go to the far other end and do short-term treasury bonds which guarantees you don’t even keep up with inflation.”

District 2 candidate Lorraine Margeson suggested working with the county to use some bed tax dollars to increase funding. District 4 city council candidate Darden Rice wants to restore the city’s funding eventually, starting with an immediate increase to $300,000 -- while her opponent, Carolyn Fries, wants to look toward private investment. Candidates were also asked about how they would lead the push to boost arts in the city. Fries told voters in the standing room only studio she needed them to work with elected officials.

“As a visionary, honestly, I would look to you to create the vision and hopefully you would come to me and I can help you make it happen because that is my strength, that is what I’m very good at doing.”

Fries’ opponent, Rice, talked about how to spend money if more becomes available. She said she visited New Orleans where artists were recruited by offering free healthcare and would like to see St. Pete work out a similar program.

“It could be something like a foundation that would help offset premiums for healthcare benefits that could be bought under the new, emerging state health exchange offered under the Affordable Care Act. There’s a lot of different ways to do it and I think that the city certainly can play a role in doing this. New Orleans does it with a lot of taxpayer support, but I think there’s a way we can do it in St. Petersburg not with taxpayer support, but with private foundation dollars.”

Building on that, District 8 candidate Amy Foster, who will face Steve Galvin on the ballot, said she’d like to see a cost-saving program in St. Pete similar to what’s done in West Palm Beach.

“They encouraged artists to locate to their city by having affordable housing and for that reduced rate of affordable housing, they then gave time to students to encourage arts education which I think is a win-win for everybody.”

Questions from local artists also touched on the contentious debate over what to do with the city’s pier now that the contract with architects to build the Lens has been cancelled. The question blasted the outcome of the referendum that forced the city’s hand. It was the only question District 2 city council member Jim Kennedy answered because he had to leave early for another meeting. Kennedy supported building the Lens because he said the process for choosing the design was solid.

“A concern that if we did not go forward with the Lens and we look for something that everybody liked, we’d have something that was very common.”

Other topics included expanding cultural art programs to attract more international tourism. And District 4 hopeful Rice said the city should also look outside the downtown art scene.

“And I would like to the city be sure and remember its support for areas like the Royal Theatre and the Carter G. Woodson Museum and that we need to be sure that the city’s support of the arts also reflects its commitment and a sense of equity to the Southside of our city.”

District 6 candidate Sharon Russ was also at the forum. She emphasized the need to push more arts programs into public education.

Election Day is November 5.

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