The last St. Petersburg Mayors Forum was decidedly different from the previous one; there were no intense debates or antagonistic quips between contestants Robert Blackmon and Ken Welch, and, more importantly, the emphasis was on the arts.
With just under four weeks to go to the municipal general elections, the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance (SPAA) hosted the forum on Tuesday evening from the Palladium Theater, along with its community partners, the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions (ISPS ). The event focused on topics such as funding for the arts, housing for artists and economic development through the arts.
Kimberly Jackson, ISPS Executive Director and SPAA Board Member, moderated the forum. She began the event by declaring the importance to the community of knowing where St. Pete’s next mayor stands on art matters.
“It (the art) put us on the map,” Jackson said. “People come to St. Petersburg because of what we do – from our museums and our dancers to our exceptional visual and performing artists – art makes St. Petersburg shine.”
When it comes to increasing funding for the arts, Welch said he was an accountant by profession and “your priorities are where your budget is.” He explained that as a county commissioner he called on the arts community to come together and ask for a permanent and recurring source of funding, and he believes the best source would be the county tourist tax. Using tax funds on the bed was an oft-repeated solution that Welch mentioned several times throughout the forum.
Welch said Pinellas County provides less than 10% of the funding that other large counties such as Miami-Dade and Orange County provide to their artistic communities. “We do very well with large projects, but we don’t have the recurring funding that can help artists, and that can help organizations cover running costs,” Welch said.
Welch has pledged to lead the charge by asking the Tourism Development Council (TDC) for a percentage of the resort tax.
“If we only get a third of a cent, that’s over $ 3 million in recurring funding that can support the arts,” he said. “Other counties are doing it – it is high time for us to do it in Pinellas County and St. Petersburg. “
Blackmon, a current city council member, noted that the city recently approved a $ 700 million budget that only included $ 700,000 for the arts. He said if even half of one percent went to the arts, that would equate to $ 3.5 million, or five times the amount currently allocated. He realizes that taxpayers may wonder how this would affect the overall budget, but said it’s important to look at what the arts have done for the city.
“We just increased the budget more than that – even with a reduction in the mileage rate – because property taxes kept going up, and they keep going up because of the cultural destination that St. Pete has become. “said Blackmon. “So we can start with our own budget because it’s a list of our priorities and a list of our values.”
Blackmon has said he will not be running for mayor of St. Pete Beach or any other community in Pinellas County, and his priority will be to ensure that St. Petersburg receives as much funding as possible to increase tourism. artistic in the city. He said one way to do this was through the TDC, but added that the mayor also has a great platform to work with local philanthropists.
Blackmon noted that art falls into many different categories and includes music, painting, and architecture. He explained that during his career in the private sector, he won a preservation award for the best historic renovation of a building over 100 years old, and that preservation is a way to encourage the private sector. and philanthropists to do the right thing for the arts community.
“The Palladium was saved by philanthropists,” Blackmon added. “But it’s also supporting artists where they are and finding ways to even encourage the purchase of works of art from private collections.”
Welch said the way forward is through collaboration and it’s critical to have someone who can present an effective case and lead the change. He said he was instrumental in securing more funds for the Dali Museum to move to its current location, as he argued the project would benefit the entire county. He also said it’s a misnomer that St. Pete generates the most bed tax funding, and that distinction goes to Clearwater and Clearwater Beach.
“That’s why it’s vitally important that we have a collaborative style,” Welch said. “I am proud to be supported by many members of the TDC and the county commission who will ultimately make this decision.”
Blackmon said he would partner with the school board to increase arts education and after-school programs. He said he would prioritize all neighborhoods and community centers in the city for youth programs and mentioned his fight to save the Science Center. The center is adjacent to Azalea Middle School, he noted, just down the road from the extensive Tyrone Square Mall bus system, and would ensure that “all letters of STEAM (science, technology, art , mathematics) are represented ”.
“The ‘A’ in STEAM is a big deal out there,” Blackmon said. “And back to the overall art strategy, you could have the ‘A’ depicted there, you could have a retail store, you could have a classroom space, you could have an artist studio space under what would be a great tent for any STEAM education. “