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Mayoral candidates address the arts community

Mark Parker



Mayoral candidates Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon focused on issues concerning the arts community at the latest mayoral forum.

St. Petersburg’s latest mayoral forum was decidedly different than the last; there were no intense debates or antagonistic quips lobbed between candidates Robert Blackmon and Ken Welch, and, most importantly – the focus was on the arts.

With just under four weeks to go until the municipal general election, The St. Petersburg Arts Alliance (SPAA) hosted the forum Tuesday night from the Palladium Theater, along with community partners the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions (ISPS). The event focused on topics such as funding for the arts, housing for artists, and economic development through the arts.

Kimberly Jackson, Executive Director of ISPS and a board member of the SPAA, moderated the forum. She began the event by stating the importance for the community to know where St. Pete’s next mayor stands on art issues.

“It (art) has put us on the map,” said Jackson. “People come to St. Petersburg because of what we do – from our museums to our dancers to our visual artists to our exceptional performing artists – the art makes St. Petersburg shine.”

When it comes to increasing funding for the arts, Welch said that he is an accountant by trade, and “your priorities are where your budget is.” He relayed that as a county commissioner he called on the arts community to come together and ask for a permanent, recurring funding source, and he believes the best source would be the county’s bed tax. Using bed tax funds was an oft-repeated solution that Welch brought up several times throughout the forum.

Welch said that Pinellas County provides less than 10% of the funding other large counties such as Miami-Dade and Orange County provide to their arts communities. “We do great with big projects, but we don’t have the recurring funding that can help artists, and that can help organizations with operational costs,” said Welch.

Welch pledged to lead the charge in asking the Tourist Development Council (TDC) for a percentage of the bed tax.

“If we only got a third of one cent, that’s more than $3 million of recurring funding that can support the arts,” he said. “Other counties are doing it – it’s past time for us to do it in Pinellas County and St. Petersburg.”

Blackmon, a member of the current city council, noted the city recently approved a $700 million budget which only included $700,000 for the arts. He said that if even half of one percent went to the arts, it would equal $3.5 million – or five times the amount currently allocated. He realizes that taxpayers may wonder how that would affect the overall budget, but said it is important to look at what the arts have done for the city.

“We just increased the budget more than that – even with a millage rate reduction – because property taxes have continued to rise, and they continue to rise because of the cultural destination St. Pete has become,” said Blackmon. “So, we can start with our own budget because it is a list of our priorities and a list of our values.”

Blackmon said he is not running for mayor of St. Pete Beach or any other community in Pinellas County, and his priority would be making sure St. Petersburg receives as much funding as possible to increase art tourism in the city. He said that one way to do that is through the TDC, but added that the mayor also has a large platform to work with local philanthropists.

Blackmon noted that art falls into many different categories and includes music, painting and architecture. He relayed that during his career in the private sector, he won a preservation award for Best Historic Renovation of an over-100-year-old building, and preservation is one way to encourage the private sector and philanthropists to do the right thing for the arts community.

“The Palladium was saved by philanthropists,” added Blackmon. “But it’s also supporting artists where they are and finding ways to encourage even the purchase of art in private collections.”

Welch said the way to move forward is through collaboration, and it is vital to have someone that can make an effective argument and lead the change. He said he was instrumental in securing more funding for the Dali Museum to move to its current location because he argued the project would benefit the entire county. He also said it is a misnomer that St. Pete generates the most bed tax funding, and that distinction goes to Clearwater and Clearwater Beach.

“That’s why it is vitally important that we have a collaborative style,” said Welch. “I’m proud to be endorsed by many members of the TDC and the county commission who will ultimately make this decision.”

Blackmon said he would partner with the school board to increase arts education and after-school programs. He said he would prioritize all of the city’s neighborhood and community centers for youth programs and mentioned his fight to save the Science Center. The center is adjacent to Azalea Middle School, he noted, just down the road from the vast busing system at Tyrone Square Mall, and would ensure that “all the letters of STEAM (Science, Technology, Art, Math) are represented.”

“The ‘A’ in STEAM is a big deal there,” said Blackmon. “And back to the comprehensive arts strategy, you could have the ‘A’ represented there, you could have a retail store, you could have classroom space, you could have artist studio space under what would be a big tent of all STEAM education.”




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