From Tarpon Springs to St. Petersburg, Pinellas County's rich cultural arts scene significantly contributes to the economy, tourism and the quality of life. It's understandable that public investment in the arts disappeared in an era of declining tax revenue for local governments and tough times for taxpayers. But as the economy recovers, the county and the cities should revisit how best to promote the arts and reinvest in one of the county's best assets.
Arts groups from throughout Pinellas have kicked off their efforts by forming a new group, PinArts, to push public officials to resume modest spending that has been cut or eliminated. The initial members range from arts committees in St. Petersburg and Clearwater to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater to the Dunedin Fine Art Center. Organizers make a compelling case that the arts have an annual economic impact in Pinellas of more than $150 million, but that many artists and organizations are struggling to make ends meet. They need the small grants, coaching and coordinated promotion that public money and a countywide arts council could provide.
Pinellas once had an independent arts council that operated as a nonprofit, screened grant applications for public money and provided that coordination. Then it was disbanded and absorbed by the county. Then the county eliminated that in-house effort in 2010 through budget cuts. What grants were left are gone, and what is left is a private nonprofit called Creative Pinellas that uses the modest revenue generated by arts-themed license plates to promote the arts with little staff. That is not enough support in a county that prides itself on its rich cultural arts offerings.
The PinArts group wants the county to resume awarding the $600,000 in grants provided annually before 2010. It wants the Tourist Development Council, which began using resort tax money in 2006 for arts grants, to resume offering $750,000 in grants. And it wants an additional $150,000 to help new artists. Moving from zero to $1.5 million is an ambitious goal, but it is time to start investing in the arts again.
Arts supporters point out that cities such as Denver, Portland and Cleveland have dedicated sources of revenue that generate millions to promote and nurture the arts. Pinellas is not as fortunate, and local government budgets are expected to remain tight for 2014-15. While the county is bringing in more resort tax money, the arts will have to compete for general tax money from the county with legitimate pitches for more money from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and others. St. Petersburg, which has cut its arts funding from $400,000 to $175,000, faces a $2.3 million budget deficit in the current budget year.
As the economy continues to recover and tax revenue rises, there are many worthy issues that have been neglected during the tough times and need more money. But the arts community has a compelling case to make, and the county and Tourist Development Council should find a way to begin responsibly reinvesting in the arts even if it takes longer to get back to previous levels of support.