Debate is on in St. Petersburg over targeted recreation fund

Should the St. Petersburg City Council tap into the funds generated from the sale of Weeki Wachee Springs — which were originally set aside for recreation — for arts, social services and youth?

That was the topic of discussion Thursday during a council workshop, and the question could eventually be put to voters in a referendum.

Council members Leslie Curran and Jeff Danner, who created an Arts Funding Committee in an effort to increase money for grants to local nonprofits, have suggested that the council use the Weeki Wachee Capital Projects Fund for the arts.

In an April 7 workshop, council Chairman Jim Kennedy questioned whether diverting the funds was legal, since in a 1999 referendum voters stipulated that the money be used for recreation and beautification projects. During the workshop, it was proposed that some of the money be diverted to the arts.

The city legal staff has said that, despite the referendum, the council does not have to get voter approval to tap into the fund for other purposes.

If the city does that, council member Steve Kornell said Thursday, then some of the money should be used for youth programs and social services. It's an idea he's been pushing since October.

Since the economy and ongoing problems with youth are at a point of crisis, Kornell said, the council must be willing to provide opportunities for young people.

Not everyone agreed. Danner and Curran wanted the funding to remain separate, stressing that in tough times the arts always loses its funding first.

But other council members argued that their constituents might not be willing to support only the arts.

"The general public understands that we're in a crisis situation," said Bill Dudley. "We have to do something with our youth."

Council member Herb Poulson suggested another approach: "We could ask the voters if they would agree to tax themselves, or we could choose to take $5 million out of our general fund balance and endow it" to support all three needs — the arts, youth programs and social services.

"We can't just talk about a seamless city; we have to live it," Kornell said later.

The 1999 referendum established a $14.4 million fund for parks and recreation. The money came from the sale of a 440-acre recreation area along Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County.

In 2007, the Weeki Wachee fund had roughly $15.9 million. In April 2009, when Danner persuaded the council to spend $169,220 from the fund for a dog park in his district, the fund had $12.3 million.

With the city already facing a $12 million deficit, is it wise to be tapping into those funds for the arts?

As a child of the arts — I grew up in Charleston, S.C., home of the successful Spoleto Festival USA — I can attest to the benefits of arts programs to a city.

In St. Petersburg, the arts community appears to be thriving. The Chihuly Collection recently celebrated its 100,000th visitor. Since it opened in its new quarters in January, the Dalí Museum has been booming. American Stage recently broke records for its latest installment in the August Wilson series and has gotten rave reviews for its adaptation of Rent, now playing at Demen's Landing.

So should the original intent of the Weeki Wachee fund be changed?

Years ago, there wasn't a burgeoning arts community on the cusp of becoming an economic driver for the city. Today, the arts complement tourism. But keep in mind, juvenile delinquency, homelessness and other social ills have a negative impact on the city.

My opinion? Put the question to the voters again. Let them decide.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Sandra J. Gadsden is an assistant metro editor/community news. She can be reached at sgadsden@sptimes.com and (727) 893-8874.

Debate is on in St. Petersburg over targeted recreation fund 04/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 6:39pm]

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