Pinellas commission urged to restore arts funding after years of budget cuts

Creative Pinellas won't ask for much in assistance for the arts community.

Advocates who want the Pinellas County Commission to restore public funding for the arts are ready to make their pitch.

The request: at least $300,000 in each of the next three years to boost marketing efforts and fund small grants to local artists and educational programs.

It's a modest amount compared to prerecession levels, when the commission distributed $600,000 in annual grants and the county's Tourist Development Council gave $750,000 to arts groups. And the proposal doesn't seek to revive the county's practice of awarding larger grants to established and emerging nonprofit arts organizations.

Better to start small and prove the worth of the investment, said Mitzi Gordon, executive director of Creative Pinellas, the county's designated local arts agency.

Gordon, who will present the plan to the commission at a budget workshop Tuesday, said the main criticism she has heard so far is the plan doesn't ask for a big enough financial commitment. Arts boosters, she said, are understandably frustrated after five years of zero arts funding by the county.

"This proposal is a first step," she said. "What I did not want to do is show up to the commission, pound my fist and say, 'We need a million-five,' because that's not how you get it. I started with a conservative ask because my goal here is to get it approved."

The proposal is a good start, said John Collins, executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance. But with tourism booming and property values rising, he said, the commission could provide twice as much as what Creative Pinellas is asking for and restore the larger grant program.

"If they don't support the nonprofits such as [email protected] or American Stage," Collins said, "there won't be places for artists to exhibit or arts-education programs."

Gordon said the plan is based on feedback she heard during five public meetings held throughout the county. The goal is to lay the foundation for the private nonprofit organization to blossom into a full-service agency as defined by Americans for the Arts, a respected national advocacy group.

She also got guidance from an important source: county administrator Mark Woodard, who suggested an appropriate funding request based on the county's fiscal realities. Woodard recommended the group come with a clear, but flexible plan and let commissioners decide the funding level.

The proposal is split into two categories: marketing and branding, and project funding and community engagement.

The $150,000 on the marketing side would help pay for a full-time media manager for Creative Pinellas, which operates on an annual budget of about $100,000. The funding includes the seed money the county provided in 2011 when Creative Pinellas was founded, and about $35,000 from sales of Florida's "State of the Arts" license plate. It can't solicit corporate donations because of its IRS designation as a 501(c)(4) organization. Gordon is the only full-time staffer, with a media manager who works part-time.

The marketing money also would be used to improve the Creative Pinellas website,; hire a professional firm to create a ready-to-use marketing package that would be available to artists, venues and arts organizations; create and maintain an events calender; and start an "artist as ambassador" campaign, among other goals.

Creative Pinellas also would continue to work closely with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county's public tourism agency, which has provided office space for Gordon and offered to help with the website.

A portion of the other $150,000 — a final amount hasn't been set — would be used for grants of $1,500 to $3,500 for artists and organizations with an educational mission. The money could be spent on materials, education or equipment used to create "an artwork, program or performance made broadly accessible at a public arts venue or event, school or community center." A volunteer committee would help develop the grant application and score the submissions.

"I've worked hard to design the concepts for the programs so there's a clear return on the investment," Gordon said.

If the commission likes the plan, it must decide how to fund it. Among the options are the general fund and the "bed tax" levied on hotel rooms and other short term rentals.

The proposal calls for a report in fiscal year 2017 to assess the results. That's important because grant dollars doled out under the former model weren't always well spent and the process lacked oversight, said Commissioner Karen Seel, who serves as an ex-officio member of the Creative Pinellas board.

Seel still has concerns about the grants, including how much administrative support would be required to run the program.

"But this was important to the arts community, so I'm certainly willing to monitor this and see if it works," she said.

Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.