ST. PETERSBURG — The city has made some hefty bets on the arts.
It pays the Mahaffey Theater's nearly $1 million annual deficit. The City Council recently gave $2.6 million to help construct the new Salvador Dali Museum. And each year, the city antes up $175,000 for various arts groups.
In tough economic times, every city expense is scrutinized. The arts even more so. But this week the council received a report that helps justify the city's art spending.
Arts and cultural organizations brought in 1.3 million visitors who spent $26 million in 2009, according to an economic impact study by the USF St. Petersburg College of Business. At least 25 percent of those visitors came from outside the city. In all, the organizations provided more than 500 jobs.
St. Petersburg's USF economic impact study is the first one that tried to quantify what the arts and cultural institutions actually do for the economy, said Elizabeth Brinklow, the city's cultural affairs manager.
The study "answers a lot of questions," said council member Jeff Danner. "The arts really are a job generator and an economic engine."
Not everyone is sold. Community activist Theresa "Momma Tee" Lassiter has regularly criticized the city's subsidizing of the Dali.
"They need to deal with the basics, what we really need." Lassiter said. "The Dali is a place for rich people to drink wine and hobnob with one another. Meanwhile, they're cutting programs for seniors and our children."
Lassiter's lament echoes across Tampa Bay. In 2009, when Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio proposed spending $2 million to turn Zack Street into an "Avenue of the Arts," she met resistance from a City Council that instead wanted to direct that money to parks. The council voted to slice the total to $1 million. Still, Linda Saul-Sena and Mary Mulhern voted against the compromise.
"Given that our dollars are so limited, I want our investment made on the new downtown park," Saul-Sena said. "The tough question about spending on the arts is, where do you find the balance?"
Saul-Sena, an urban planner, supports spending on the arts. She said it brings in a better class of tourist than sports, tourists who are better educated and make more. But getting concrete proof that investing in arts pays off is hard to find.
A recent study by the National Endowment of the Arts said that while arts and culture make significant contributions to local economies, most political and governmental leaders don't understand this. Still, the report said, "many city and small-town leaders are beginning to understand these connections."
For Danner, one of the St. Petersburg's biggest arts boosters, the study confirmed that arts really do "bring a Creative Class community to the city."
He was referring to The Rise of the Creative Class, a 2004 book by Richard Florida that posits those cities that attract successful professionals do so, in part, through quality of life features, such as cultural institutions like museums. Cities that don't lure this class will fall behind, Florida says.
The book has made its rounds at St. Petersburg City Hall this year, wending all the way to Mayor Bill Foster's desk. Its premise has helped shape the debate.
"When you think about why businesses move here or why educated and successful people move to a community, arts plays a big role in that," St. Petersburg council member Karl Nurse said. "It has been interesting to watch to see the evolution of how people appreciate the arts."
The study reinforces that view. It was requested by John Collins, the chairman of St. Petersburg's volunteer Arts Advisory Committee. It was prepared by Maria Luisa Corton, an economics professor, who surveyed 32 arts and cultural organizations, which included the children's museum Great Explorations, the St. Petersburg Museum of History, the Dali, and businesses such as art galleries, including one owned by council Chairwoman Leslie Curran.
The study concluded that the respondents spent $16 million on wages, rent and marketing activities, while generating $26 million in revenue.
Those numbers help justify not just the money already spent, but future spending as well. As municipal spending gets more competitive, each department is trying to make its case. It's tough. Three years ago, the city spent $350,000 each year on arts organizations, but that was cut in half to help plug a deficit that continues to grow.
"If we don't toot our own horn, who will?" Collins said.
Bank of America gave Collins a $15,000 grant for the study, brochures and banners that state "Art Shines Here." They will be given to businesses and organizations in the coming weeks, he said.
For council members, the study provides a rationale for spending that can be hard to explain to those encountering tough economic times.
It's important that people "understand the importance of art in our community," said council member Bill Dudley. "For the first time, I have a better understanding of the economic impact."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.