Potholier-than-thou competition over arts district

Perhaps you’ve heard about the cultural brouhaha they’re having over in Tampa. For all its major-market accoutrements and Super Bowls, the city could learn a lot from downtown St. Petersburg about the value and role of the arts in helping to energize a city. And how to utilize a waterfront, but that’s another issue.

Anyway, courtesy of the 1996 Community Investment Tax — otherwise known as “Do Something to Save the Bucs with Taxpayers’ Money” gambit — Tampa has $11 million a year to spend on infrastructure improvements and public facilities. And Raymond James Stadium.

The city, led by its lame duck mayor, Dick Greco, wants to earmark about $4 million of the CIT annually — in bond financing over the remaining 25 years of the tax — for a cultural arts district and expansion of Tampa’s zoo.

Instead of a reasoned, even if impassioned, debate on the subject, however, discussion has degenerated into a class warfare exercise not seen since the Al Gore campaign. On one side is the arts crowd, easily labeled “elitist.” On the other are homeowners saying more should be done for the — no, make that THEIR — neighborhoods. It’s created this potholier-than-thou competition among neighborhoods, who are, in turn, pitted against downtown and its ostensibly self-absorbed, aesthetic set.

Hey, Tampa, if you want to be big league, instead of just hosting a Roman numeraled football game every decade, you’re going to have to act like it. This sort of “us” vs. “them” debate is now passe in progressive cities. When it comes to the arts, it’s not the “silk stocking” crowd vs. the neighborhood Philistines. The arts benefit all of us, as few other municipal investments do, across the range of neighborhoods and socioeconomic levels. It would be condescending to imply that only certain souls can be nourished or have their spirits sent soaring by the arts.

Otherwise, annual attendance for Tampa Bay arts organizations wouldn’t exceed 5 million. That’s about 2 million more than turn out for professional sports around here. Nearly half those arts-related admissions were free, 40% of whom were children. And this doesn’t include the 700,000 annual attendees at the Lowry Park Zoo, as egalitarian an experience as there is, and the 130,000 kids — from every Tampa Bay zip code — who attend zoo classes. And more, despite a downtown, public arts infrastructure limited to an outreach-driven but embarrassingly undersized museum of art; a convention center-annexed history center; and a first-class but stand-alone performing arts center. That the Poe Garage has the highest profile on downtown’s Ashley Drive should be exhibit A about Tampa’s past priorities, ones it should surely aspire to no longer.

Tampa’s CIT is a fortuitous opportunity to help it move to the next level — culturally and economically. The arts, as we were reminded in the cover story of last week’s Newsweek, are increasingly seen as “urban jump-starters, capable of attracting hordes of visitors, good press and even new business.” More than most major urban markets, Tampa — not yet a household name nationally — needs such investment infusions. The arts are real-world, multi-faceted catalysts.

The arts, first and foremost, are investments in a community — in its own quality of life and especially that of its children. This isn’t just Grecospeak or “monument building,” as one city councilman — and mayor wannabe — called the arts plan, which would include new facilities for the Tampa Museum of Art and Tampa Bay History Center.

The realization of Tampa’s potential will take vision. There’s a city council vote upcoming that will determine if the CIT funding will include the cultural arts district. Be interesting to see which way Tampa goes.

Here’s my advice to the city council members: Vote as if you were the mayor, not a maintenance supervisor.

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