ST. PETERSBURG — City Council member Charlie Gerdes has revived an idea to use money from the sale of Weeki Wachee lands as a more sustainable source of funding for the arts.
"If we're going to brag about being a city of the arts, if we're going to take credit about the arts … but we're not going to make a stable commitment, then it's all just fluff," Gerdes said to loud applause at Thursday's council meeting, which was dominated by the issue after a string of speakers pleaded for the city to step up its financial support.
In recent months, as the economy has improved and the city's reputation as an arts destination has been bolstered with more national recognition, arts advocates have been more vocal about getting a bigger commitment from the city.
"A lot of arts businesses are in survival mode," said Jeff Schorr, owner of the Craftsman House Gallery on Central Avenue. "The Dalí is a great magnet … however the trickle-down effect has not worked."
The city once gave a few hundred thousand dollars a year to local arts organizations but scaled back to $175,000 each of the last few years because of the recession.
Gerdes said his intent is to provide a permanent source of funding for what has become a strong economic driver in the city.
His idea isn't new. It was pitched a few years ago by former council members Leslie Curran and Jeff Danner but never gained traction.
The Weeki Wachee Capital Projects Fund was established by voter referendum in 1999 after the sale of a 440-acre recreation area along Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County. It essentially operates as an endowment, with interest from the $14.4 million principal.
As of March 31, there was about $20 million in the fund, budget director Tom Greene said Thursday, leaving about $5.1 million unassigned.
However, the referendum placed restrictions on the use of the funds. Only about 40 percent of that, or about $2 million, could be used for things other than parks, recreation or preservation.
Mayor Rick Kriseman told the crowd he is committed to the arts. It's not yet clear if he will have more money in his budget next year.
"If we can't find the dollars in (general revenue), we're going to look somewhere else for them," he said.
The council voted to take up Gerdes' idea at a future budget committee meeting.
In other news, administration officials promised an update soon on the red-light camera program after council member Wengay Newton demanded to know when the program would be shuttered and how the city planned to address refunds for people ticketed at intersections with yellow-light times that were too short.
City Administrator Gary Cornwell said the program would end Sept. 30 — the point at which the program will no longer pay for itself.
But frequent camera critic Matt Florell told the council his own analysis shows the city is already losing money.
Cornwell said he would get answers on that soon.