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City postpones need for proof that arts funding generates tourist dollars

Tuesday, March 30, 2010 by Austin Monitor

The director of the city’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office, Kevin Johns, has issued an apology for the way that arts groups were informed of proposed changes to the city’s arts funding process—and removed language related to generation of tourism dollars from the application forms.


A number of organizations were taken by surprise last week when they learned of changes proposed for applications due to the city on May 1 for grants from the city’s hotel occupancy tax funds (HOT). In his letter, Johns also apologized to City Council members and upper city management, who got an earful over the controversy. (See In Fact Daily, March 24, 2010)


Johns did not write the letter that set off the turmoil, however. Vincent Kitch, the city’s cultural arts program manager, works for Johns. Kitch notified arts organizations in mid-March that, “All funding projects must have public performances, events, services, etc. that involve both tourists and residents. You will be required to track this information throughout the project period and report participation as part of your final report.”


The change set off a storm of outrage that jammed Council email inboxes last week.


“…Despite the poor administrative launch of these deliberations under my direction, the purpose and intent remain the same: to enhance the Austin creative industry cluster, locally and globally,” Johns wrote in a letter sent to Council members and members of the arts community. “I would like to formally apologize to those of you in the arts community who were reasonably disturbed by the untimely action of my office and team, as a result of legal findings.”


The proposed change in the funding process came as a result of concerns that the city was not spending the HOT funds as prescribed by state law. A recommendation by the city’s Law Department apparently resulted in the proposed change that caused the uproar.  


As a result of the concerns, Johns wrote, several changes will be made in the policy, including:


  • Deleting the proposed new language regarding promoting tourism;
  • Consultations by the Law Department with additional legal experts on interpreting the code; and
  • Convening a stakeholder group, including representatives of the arts, the Arts Commission and the hotel industry, to refine the process.

Johns wrote that the stakeholder group would help reach a consensus on how to interpret the law concerning HOT funds, and recommend ways of funding groups that fall outside of the tourism dollar program.


However, at least one member of the arts community, Michael Melinger of the Austin Jazz Workshop, remains concerned about the future of arts funding in the city.


“My reading of Kevin’s letter is that arts education groups may be moved out of the HOT funds and into an unspecified-as-yet ‘somewhere else,’” he wrote. “If this ‘somewhere else’ ends up being the city’s general fund, I fear we will be fighting this battle annually, with the threat of being cut always looming during lean budget years. Arts education funding would also be at the whim of future councils, mayors, and city managers who may not share our vision of its true value.”

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