DUNEDIN — A controversial $800,000 donation package that City Manager Rob DiSpirito says will enhance taxpayers' quality of life by generating revenue via increased tourism received the green light from city commissioners Thursday.
In a 4-1 vote, elected leaders directed staff to draft letters committing $500,000 to the Dunedin Fine Art Center and $200,000 to the Dunedin Historical Museum. There was confusion Thursday night, but City Attorney Tom Trask said Friday that the vote will also steer $100,000 toward the city-owned Blatchley House at Weaver Park.
The money will help each organization fund expansion projects that officials say will draw in both outside visitors and residents, who rated Dunedin's arts and culture as the top reasons they visit or live there. Officials say this will put the city on par to compete with the entertainment offerings of neighboring cities.
Increased tourism equals increased revenues for city roads, police and fire service, buildings and other infrastructure, DiSpirito said.
But first, city staff will spend the coming months figuring out how to pay for the donations.
"I certainly see this as a good investment on the part of the city," said Commissioner Julie Scales. "A long line of commissions have supported these institutions."
"There's clear evidence that it's a sound economic driver, but it's more than that," added Commissioner Ron Barnette, eliciting applause from about 50 supporters who filled City Hall chambers. "It speaks directly to who we are as a city and why so many of us moved here."
The city contribution will supplement the art center's rare chance for a 2-to-1 state matching grant to be used to add a new wing. To be eligible, the center must raise $1 million by July.
Officials said Thursday's commitment would help leverage additional funds from contributors who were awaiting the city's decision. The art center originally sought the grant when planning a different wing, but it wasn't awarded until last June, after the project was complete.
Since the early 1970s, board member Charlie Klein said, the art center has privately funded nearly $4.4 million worth of improvements to a city-owned building that has made Dunedin "the jewel" it is today.
"We're not looking for a handout. We're asking for a continuation of that partnership we've had with the city for the last 44 years," said Charlie Klein, chairman of the art center's board.
The historical society plans to use its donation for a new Main Street entrance that officials expect will lead to increased foot traffic, higher-quality exhibits, accreditation and ultimately increased eligibility for grants and self-sustainability.
The Blatchley House money would augment grants to build an environmental education center.
In casting the lone "no" vote, Mayor Dave Eggers said he admires each organization. But, with so many other more urgent or delayed expenses to consider, like roads and increased law enforcement in some neighborhoods, he couldn't support making such a large donation on top of the city's annual cash and in-kind donations to each group.
"I don't see the economy going anywhere fast," Eggers said.
Bujalski, too, initially hesitated, saying she first wanted more information on options for funding the arts projects along with other potential expenses, such as a new government annex and the Dunedin Golf Club's recent request that the city purchase its clubhouse.
However, she voted "yes" after DiSpirito said he and finance director Karen Feeney have already begun exploring community center debt refinancing and other ways to fund the quality-of-life package, which they believe will cost the city $38,000 annually for the next 30 years.
The vote followed controversy last fall, in which former city commissioner David Carson accused the art center of handpicking political newcomer Heather Gracy to unseat him during the November election and funding her campaign. Gracy told the Times she had long supported quality-of-life projects, and art center members said they supported her either because of her views or longtime friendships.
In other news
• Attorneys have filed a claim seeking more than $8.8 million that accountants estimate Dunedin lost in tourism dollars, property taxes and other revenues following bad publicity surrounding the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the settlement demand, the city has already lost nearly $1.7 million and will lose another $7.1 million through 2015. If BP refuses to settle, attorneys will come back before commissioners for permission to take the case to court.
• Commissioners unanimously supported adding late City Manager John Lawrence's name to Pioneer Park. They will read an official proclamation at their April 4 meeting, and planners expect to hold a dedication ceremony at the park that weekend. Lawrence, Dunedin's longest-serving city manager, was 66 when he died Aug. 26.
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.