In Ann Wykell, they saw a leader.
It was the cultural affairs manager who would return phone calls within the hour. Someone who, as a former dancer and educator with a master's degree in business administration, could see their vision and help it flourish.
So cultural organizations across the city were shocked to learn last week that Wykell is the latest victim of budget cuts.
After all, the post she held for a decade was created by the first bullet point in the 1999 Community Cultural Plan, titled "Visions for a New Millennium."
In these hard economic times, was the city pulling back on its oft-stated goal of growing as a cultural destination?
"I've lived her 12 years, and there has been a cultural renaissance in the city in that time," said Bob Devin Jones, artistic director and co-founder of Studio@620, the downtown performing arts space.
Five years ago, as Wykell shepherded the birth of Studio@620, she rolled up her sleeves alongside Jones and others and painted the walls.
"I understand this was a budget decision, but I think it was, in my view, ill advised," said Devin Jones. "I think you need an office of cultural affairs because it signals to everybody else that you are serious about it."
In doing without the job, the city, which is about halfway through making $15 million to $20 million in budget cuts, is saving about $35,000 this year and eliminating Wykell's salary of $74,540. Wykell's last day is Friday.
The decision to eliminate the job came to light during a meeting of the Arts Advisory Committee, a volunteer panel that worked closely with Wykell administering grant money. It took members by surprise.
V. Mark Durand, committee chairman, told city officials he was shocked that the panel was not asked for its input.
"I think the position is vital," said Durand, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. "I think the concern is that the commitment to the arts has changed, given that there was one position in the whole city to coordinate the arts."
City officials are adamant that the change is not a step back from the cultural plan, but a necessary reorganization during hard times.
Wykell's responsibilities will be absorbed by Elizabeth Brincklow, a manager of community programming at the city-owned Mahaffey Theater who earns $51,174 a year. Brincklow will work under the direction of the marketing and economic development departments.
"We think that these changes will help strengthen the arts," said First Deputy Mayor Tish Elston, although she could not elaborate. "We think we can still support our arts programs and have this kind of consolidation."
Elston said that while the city's goals under the reorganization have not been formulated, there is no intention of cutting back funding for arts grants.
Council member Leslie Curran, a gallery owner and founder of the Saturday Arts Market, said she pushed for the changes.
Curran said cities across the nation have melded their arts efforts under economic development to harness growth. She pointed to smaller cities like Paducah, Ky., which offers incentives to lure out-of-town artists to settle into derelict buildings.
"Art is a business. Art is not a luxury," said Curran. "We are going to do bigger and better with this reorganization."
In an interview, Wykell said the city's decision took her by surprise, considering that her job description in the cultural plan was revised last year to include marketing and economic development.
She said she took pride in creating a partnership with the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau to get funding for national advertising, initiating a free museum day and creating a cooperative advertising contract with small businesses and this newspaper.
"I don't think it serves the art community well," Wykell said of the changes.
To be sure, the arts were alive in St. Petersburg before the cultural plan. But when it was crafted a decade ago, there was a sense that the Sunshine City was growing past its sleepy image, ready to embrace the arts as part of its identity.
"The city was just ready to burst forth," said Judith Powers-Jones, director of cultural affairs for Pinellas County, who helped craft the plan and who sits on the arts advisory council.
Powers-Jones said the cultural affairs manager job was "the key recognition" in the document and that Wykell rose to the task.
She noted that since 2005, St. Petersburg has been ranked by American Style magazine as one of the Top 25 arts destinations.
Among the gifts of a cultural affairs manager is her accessibility to those outside government, Powers-Jones said.
"She really has her ear to the street," agreed Stephanie Schorr, a potter and co-owner of Craftsman House Gallery and Cafe.
Schorr could count on Wykell to drop by for a sandwich at the cafe to talk about the city budget as well as the Craftsman House finances.
For Barbara Heck, president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations, Wykell, who was the assistant director of the Sarasota Arts Council for a decade before she came here, was also indispensable.
"Whenever I had an arts questions, or needed some counseling as to what the best method to go forward would be," said Heck, "I would give Ann a call."
As part of her job, Wykell also oversaw international relations, including a "Sister City" relationship with Takamatsu, Japan.
She's still planning several days of events in May around Mayor Hideto Onishi's latest visit, including an art show at Creative Clay Cultural Arts Center with the Rays' Akinori Iwamura.
"It scares me deeply," said Grace-Anne Alfiero, executive director and founder of the center, "that I won't have Ann's help to pull this off."
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.