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Monday, Jul 24, 2017

Pinellas leaders see value of arts, seek more information

Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday agreed the time has come to reinvest in local arts. They want to know, however, how and where the money should be spent.

Creative Pinellas, the county-funded arts agency, is seeking $300,000 a year to promote the arts and to fund local artists and programs for the next three years.

But the agency’s presentation Tuesday that was heavy on concepts and light on specifics concerned some commissioners.

“I think there are a lot of holes in this presentation,” Commissioner Janet Long said.

Creative Pinellas Executive Director Mitzi Gordon proposed a variety of community arts programs,including some for children and the elderly, grants and support for artists, art teachers and art centers, and hiring a media manager to help promote and market the county’s art community.

Gordon conceded the proposal lacked line-item budget details, but said those would come once the group knows how much money the county would provide. County Administrator Mark Woodard agreed. He said he worked with Gordon and the proposal was vague intentionally, unlike the detailed budget requests made by other county departments.

“I think the intent was to get a temperature check from the board to the degree at which the board is willing to support the arts,” Woodard said.

Woodard also supported Creative Pinellas’ decision to invest the $300,000 it received when it began in 2011 and to operate off of its proceeds. Some commissioners said the money should have been spent rather than saved.

“The money was intended to show it was sustainable,” Woodard said.

The Creative Pinellas request will come back to the commission in two weeks with more details as part of the county’s 2015-16 budget review process.

The county’s art funding took a hit when it shut down the Office of Cultural Affairs amid the budget crisis five years ago. That office had a $900,000 budget and 10 employees, Commissioner Karen Seel said.

Seel noted that Gordon, as the agency’s only full-time employee, isn’t able to distribute more of the money the agency received. Creative Pinellas has developed a Website it uses to promote and draw interest to the local arts community.

Even as some commissioners questioned the spending, they also asked whether the $300,000 request is enough to make an impact. Many of the people who spoke in favor the request Thursday had the same concern.

Commissioner Ken Welch suggested adding another $300,000 a year, and said Creative Pinellas needs more staff than Gordon and the part-time person she has with her.

“Now that we have an opportunity to reinvest in those areas I think we should do it,” Welch said.

Gordon said the program can be scaled, depending upon how much the county allocates, such as providing more grants and speeding up the development of programs. She also said she needs help.

“I can’t do it myself,” she said. Gordon said she will assemble a board of about 25 people to direct the agency and its spending.

Seel said she recommended that Gordon propose the modest budget request “so we could come back to you and prove to you we were spending the money wisely,” and making an impact with the arts community.

Seel suggested developing a signature arts event of some sort if more money is allocated.

Commissioner Pat Gerard favored increased arts spending, but, like Long and Chairman John Morroni, wanted more details “and not so much of a moving target.”

About a dozen arts advocates from St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Dunedin and elsewhere came out to support the request.

Beth Daniels, director of the Clearwater Arts Alliance, said $300,000 “simply is not sufficient for what we need.”

“I think we need at least double of what you have been asked,” she said.

She also said it’s important to provide opportunities for those who can’t afford to buy tickets to performances, particularly some children and older people.

Wayne Atherholt, cultural affairs director for the city of St. Petersburg, which spends about $1 million a year to support arts, and John Collins of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance urged the commission to reinvest in art, extolling the economic boost it can provide.

A 2015 Arts Alliance study showed arts had economic impact of $212 million in St. Petersburg, including things such as local art sales, art shows and the annual income of artists.

sgirardi@tampatrib.com

(727) 828-6752

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