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Pinellas commissioners nod yes for more arts funding

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission on Tuesday sent an encouraging message to advocates who want to restore public funding for the arts: We like the sketch of your plan. Now it's time to flesh it out.

Nearly all seven commissioners offered initial support for a proposal from Creative Pinellas, the county's designated arts agency, to set aside at least $300,000 in next year's budget to boost marketing efforts and fund small grants to local artists and educational programs.

Commissioner Janet Long is among board members who said they would support even more than that but want Creative Pinellas executive director Mitzi Gordon to bring back a clearer spending plan.

"Like everything else in our budget, the devil is in the details, and I'd like to see them," Long said.

The tentative support was music to the ears of arts supporters, who watched as the county cut hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for the arts during the recession and, in 2010, shuttered the Cultural Affairs Council, a department within county government that oversaw grant distribution. The grants ended, as well.

The council was replaced in 2011 with Creative Pinellas, a private, nonprofit agency that operates on an annual budget of about $100,000. The agency is slowly drawing on the $300,000 in seed money the county provided and still has about $270,000 remaining. The budget also includes about $35,000 from sales of Florida's "State of the Arts" license plate. Gordon is the only full-time staffer.

Gordon developed the plan she presented Tuesday with the feedback from her board and five town hall-style meetings held throughout the county. At county Administrator Mark Woodard's suggestion, she came with a general framework so commissioners could decide on a ballpark funding level.

Gordon told commissioners that the financial support would put the county on a path toward joining the ranks of top-tier arts destinations in the state.

"Making (the investment) here will move Pinellas County into a much more competitive position among Florida counties that already reap returns from the arts as part of their economic development strategies," she said.

The $150,000 on the marketing side of the plan would allow the agency to hire a full-time media manager, improve its website, hire a professional firm to create a ready-to-use marketing package, and create and maintain an events calender, among other goals.

A portion of the other $150,000 would be used for grants of $1,500 to $3,500 for artists, teachers and organizations with an educational mission. The money could be spent on materials, education or equipment used to create an artwork, program or performance accessible to the public.

The proposal calls for at least $300,000 in each of the next three budget years and a followup assessment to gauge its progress.

Now that Gordon has a sense of the funding level she and her board of directors might be working with, commissioners want a proposed budget that gives specifics, such as how much money would go to the grant program.

Commissioner Dave Eggers said a total $300,000 is "more than enough" for next year, especially if the agency draws down more of its initial seed money, as some commissioners suggested. Commissioner Ken Welch disagreed, saying $600,000 and an effective plan to spend it would help the county catch up to places such as Orlando and Sarasota.

"We've got some broad parameters that I think make sense," he said.

Commissioners agreed that the county's tourism tax, levied on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals, could be a good source of funding, at least for the marketing side of the plan.

More than a dozen arts advocates urged support for what they see as a conservative request when considering studies that show the returns on public arts investments.

"I would suggest what is being asked for is a pittance compared to what it's going to bring to the community," said Matthew Jackson, a St. Petersburg real estate investor. "We have a chance right now to do something phenomenal."

Contact Tony Marrero at or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.