Fort Worth’s arts funding task force zeroed in on gas well revenues and the hotel tax as potential sources for arts grants, pared in the city’s tight budgets, during their second meeting Thursday.
Task force members, noting the city’s Will Rogers Memorial Center parking fees have hurt museums in the area, also asked city staff members for information on whether it was possible for the city to reduce that impact. The city last fall struck a deal with the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History to rent it a parking lot and let it set its own rates and keep the revenue.
Staff members also suggested the committee could consider proposing a challenge grant connected to receiving gas well revenues. But several task force members were cool to the idea.
“I think we need to challenge the city first,” Lori Thomson, a task force member and co-owner of the Firehouse Pottery and Gallery in Fort Worth, said, characterizing this year’s $799,691 city allocation for grants funding to the Arts Council of Fort Worth & Tarrant County as “such a small amount” compared to the $583 million general fund budget.
The Fort Worth investor and benefactor Robert Bass, another task force member, worried about the continued “crowding out” of the arts grant funding from the city’s budget.
City funding to the Arts Council, which uses the city money to make grants to local arts organizations, has fallen from a $1.3 million peak in 2010 and was cut by $266,564 in the 2013 budget.
Greg Ibanez, task force member, architect and a Fort Worth Art Commission member, said a challenge grant would only serve to “divide the pie” differently.
Staff members told the task force that the city’s gas well revenues were a source they could consider. The city is in the process of moving $6.7 million of unencumbered gas revenues into a trust fund designed to throw off interest that could be spent in the future.
The money must be used for capital outlays under current city council policy, but the council is free to change that policy if it wishes, Susan Alanis, assistant city manager, told the task force.
Bass suggested the gas revenues continue to go to capital needs, which would “free up other funds for the arts.”
Johnny Campbell, president of Sundance Square and a task force member, told the task force the challenge grant idea, raised by Alanis, should be “fully considered.”
Task force members have been examining the city’s culture and tourism fund, budgeted at $33.4 million in 2013 revenue and funded in part by the hotel tax, as a potential landing spot for arts funding.
Arts grants were in the fund until 2010, when the city council moved it into the general operations fund. The culture and tourism fund is now focused on the Will Rogers Memorial Center, Fort Worth Convention Center, and Fort Worth and Convention and Visitors Bureau.
City officials estimate Will Rogers and the Convention Center have an estimated $26.3 million in capital needs over the next five years, and those funds must come from the culture and tourism fund, which also shoulders debt service on the Convention Center, operations for public events, facility maintenance, and the CVB.
“That fund is upside down today, and it’s probably more upside down than it looks,” given that the facilities’ utility bills come from the general fund, Campbell said.
Kirk Slaughter, the city’s public events director, who manages the culture and tourism fund, said the city badly needs to make improvements to Will Rogers to draw more horse shows and keep it competitive with facilities in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The Convention Center’s old north section, often used by conventions, needs a makeover, too, he said.
The state’s Republican Party held meetings at the center last summer and has re-upped for 2014, although it was reluctant because of the aging facility, Slaughter said.
The city is budgeted this year to receive $20 million from the 9 percent hotel tax. Two points of that goes to pay down Convention Center expansion debt, leaving $15 million.
Staff members told the task force that the hotel tax is a viable revenue source for arts grant funding, so long as the council finds those grants help generate hotel stays.
“We do think there are some that fall under that category, and then it’s a prioritization for the council,” Alanis told the task force.
Mayor Betsy Price, who formed the task force to seek alternative funding sources for the arts and Fort Worth Sister Cities, whose city allocation was cut to zero this year, said in an interview earlier this week “I am not real comfortable (culture and tourism is) a very stable fund for the arts.
“It’s just like the general fund,” she said. “It has its ups and downs. Not everything in it is eligible to be used (for arts grants). They have to be able to prove they put heads in beds, and there are a lot of things (the Arts Council funds) that we’re not sure puts heads in beds.”
Arts backers point to a study released last year by Americans for the Arts in Washington, D.C., that said arts groups generated at least $84.4 million in economic activity, including hotel stays, for Fort Worth in 2010. The survey was based on responses from 40 of 99 arts organizations that responded, and included no assumptions for ones that didn’t, Americans for the Arts said.
Task force members have been in general agreement that the arts generate hotel stays. Robert Benda, the task force chairman and CEO of Westwood Contractors in Fort Worth, said the committee has to create an economic rationale in any argument for city support.
“For the taxpayers who aren’t focused on the arts, there has to be a rationale for the city to make the investment beyond the aesthetic,” he said.
Thomson told the task force it shouldn’t ignore arts organizations that don’t generate hotel stays, citing Imagination Celebration, the Fort Worth nonprofit that backs programs such as Invention Convention.
“It doesn’t generate room nights, but it helps children,” she said.
Bass raised the issue of Will Rogers parking fees, which the city instituted to pay down debt on the new parking garage it built.
“One thing we shouldn’t lose sight of is that the parking fees at Will Rogers have impacted the museums significantly,” he said. “The city is impairing the health further.”
Noting last year’s Science Museum parking lot deal, Benda said the task force should “explore the possibility of additional in-kind provision of facilities such as parking that perhaps would not have an equivalent cost to the city.”
“If the city’s looking for private matching, may I point out the businesses downtown provide free parking to the arts after 6 o’oclock,” Bass said.
- Scott Nishimura, Star-Telegram Fort Worth City Hall reporter