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Funding cuts threaten the future of Cultural Council

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of June 9, 2011)
Photo of The Cultural Council’s Barbara Hoffman and Susan McGarry

With fresh new offices and a newly-named interim director, the Cultural Council of Indian River County suddenly finds itself facing funding cuts that could severely limit its activities in helping county arts groups.

The Tourist Development Council last week recommended cutting the non-profit agency’s grant request for the coming year by more than half. In another ominous sign, County Administrator Joe Baird told Vero Beach 32963 he will recommend a drastic and possible total cut in funding from the general revenue fund.

“I would say, for the general revenue fund request, I’ll be recommending that we cut it drastically if not entirely.”

The Tourist Development Council’s cut was expected to be approved by the County Commission Tuesday.

Baird’s intentions came as an apparent shock when revealed last week to Cultural Council Board Chairman Barbara Hoffman and Interim Executive Director Susan McGarry.

“Joe Baird and I spoke four months ago, and everything seemed fine,” Hoffman said.

“I’m real hesitant to comment,” said McGarry. “This is such a surprise.”

Hints of funding problems for the 16-year-old agency came from the County Commission last year, when it changed the council’s status from “quasi” non-profit to non-profit.

The shift implies that no long did the county see the function of the umbrella arts agency as an essential one that the county would have to assume in the council’s stead.

In last July’s budget workshop, with little discussion, the commission declared the Cultural Council a non-profit agency. County budget director Jason Brown says that change lumps the council in with all the other non-profits.

“After four years or so, we expect them to stand on their own,” he says. “They’ve had our help for a lot longer than that.”

Tracy Carroll, a City Council member who also sits on the Tourist Development Council, says the Cultural Council received the lowest cumulative number of points among TDC council members when non-profits were scored for funding this year.

She said the non-profit agencies were judged on the effectiveness of their presentation as well as their planned use of funds for the coming year.

“I’m very familiar with the Cultural Council, and I’ve worked with them before, so I was disappointed that they didn’t receive all the funding they requested,” says Carroll. “But these are hard times.”

“From an artist’s perspective, (the Cultural Council is) invaluable. They promote us by supplying a website and PR,” says Shotsi Lajoie, an artist at Tiger Lily Studio and Gallery. “They have the only view of the total cultural and art picture, which is important.

“Could some other organization do a better job? Maybe,” Lajoie adds. “For now, they are the only ones with a clear mission to support the arts and culture without a hidden agenda.”

Other arts organizations echoed Lajoie’s support, largely for the council’s funding of publicity.  Art sales have dropped off dramatically, downtown gallery owners say, since the economic downturn began.

Though news for her organization appears grim, McGarry gamely looks to a future when funding avails itself for the council’s latest dream: a plan, drawn up by consultants at a cost estimated at $115,000, that will chart the county’s cultural course.

The plan, similar to those of other Florida counties, would be drawn from data on needs, interest, and past attendance at arts events.

McGarry says such data is vital when the arts agencies apply for grants. While the comprehensive plan promises the county’s cooperation with the council on its plan, Baird emphatically declared that it in no way mandates funding. “Unfortunately when times are as tight as they are, we have to look at what are basic necessities,” he said.

He cited examples of other non-profit organizations including the Humane Society and the GoLine buses that provide essential services the county would otherwise have to provide.  “The Cultural Council is not a basic needs requirement,” he said.

Last year, the county gave the agency $36,000. This year’s general revenue request is for slightly less: $34,000.

Overall, Baird says, tax revenues are down 46 per cent from the ’06-’07 fiscal year, and impact fees from new construction are down 80 percent. “We’ve eliminated over 240 positions at the county,” he says. “No one’s been spared.” 

The Cultural Council is involved in making presentations to businesses considering relocation to the county. It also helps promote local galleries, artists and frame shops, and stages amateur art exhibitions in public buildings. Its chief fund-raising activities are ad revenues from an events brochure and tickets to its own awards presentation, the Laurel Awards, for individuals active in the arts.

Council members, who pay dues, are among the volunteers staging the Hibiscus Festival, the Children’s Art Festival and the Pelican Island Wildlife Festival.

The council operated last year on a $196,000 budget, about half of which was provided through tax dollars. Assuming tourist tax dollars shrink to $35,000 from last year’s $60,000, (the council had requested $75,000) and the county’s $36,000 contribution last year potentially cut or reduced to zero, McGarry faces a difficult task making up the difference in grants and public-sector donations.

Last week’s move by the Tourist Development Council left board chairwoman Barbara Hoffman “very surprised.”

“We’ve been analyzing the situation and have made some requests for additional information. We haven’t taken any steps to hold discussions at this point. We want the opportunity to gather our thoughts,” Hoffman added.

Since Hoffman became board chairwoman a year and a half ago, the 15-member board has shifted considerably, with six current vacancies after a number of resignations earlier this year. McGarry replaced Mary Jayne Kelly, who resigned for personal reasons this spring.

Hoffman said some resigning board members cited conflicts with the other agencies they are involved with, once they realized they were being asked to raise private funds for Hoffman’s key project, the cultural plan. The project, involving public participation through focus groups and surveys, could take eight to 10 months to complete.

“It’s a targeted road map with a lot of details,” said Hoffman. “It would help us move quickly from the planning effort toward being able to implement the plan’s recommendations. It’s not one of these pie-in-the-sky plan documents that you put on the shelf; it’s action oriented.”

Early stages of fund raising for the cultural plan and its $115,000 price tag – a Broward consultant’s fee – have shown that donors expect county help with funding, the two stressed.

“When we go out to private people and companies and ask for funds, they want to know, well, what’s the county going to do?” said McGarry. To that end, in February, the Tourist Development Council approved a line-item transfer of tourist tax dollars allotted the council, reallocating $15,000 toward the fund for the cultural plan.

“I look at it as an investment in our future,” said McGarry. “It’s going to provide a lot of data that we don’t have right now to measure the economic impact of culture on our community. We don’t have a handle on that.”

The two pointed to the efforts of downtown galleries and restaurant owners in branding the area as the Downtown Dine and Design, or 3-D, district. McGarry said others have relocated to the district “because of her synergistic effect” which she says “jumpstarted downtown.”

In other communities, Hoffman said, consultants have included in cultural plans a performing arts center, as well as investments in organizations and companies related to cultural development.

“Right now, all we have to rely on are just numbers of people buying tickets to certain events. That’s really just part of the story about what the untapped desires are that are out there,” said McGarry.

The Tourist Development Council is a board made up of people from government, business and non-profit sectors. It makes recommendations to the county commission on the distribution of funds raised by the county’s 2.5 percent tourist tax on hotel rooms and rentals shorter than six months.

In addition to the Cultural Council, last month’s meeting looked at budgets for the county’s chambers of commerce, the Treasure Coast Sports Commission and Vero Heritage, Inc., which runs the Heritage Center and the Citrus Museum. All received their funding requests except the Cultural Council. The Historical Society, which last year received $6,566, did not make a request for funds this year.