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Watson, Israel weigh in on mayoral plans to help arts community

Monday, October 24, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

As local artists and musicians continue to be priced out of Austin, the next mayor and City Council will need to take decisive, ongoing actions and think in new ways to prevent the city’s highly touted creative culture from being wiped away. How best to handle those pressures was the topic of the day at the mayoral candidate forum held Saturday by the Austin Creative Alliance and the Flower Hill Foundation.

Former state lawmakers Kirk Watson and Celia Israel, the two presumed front-runners for the two-year term, answered preselected questions for much of the 75-minute discussion, and also took some questions from audience members in attendance at Hyde Park Theatre.

The questions covered issues such as enhancing public and private support for the arts, finding ways to better use the city’s portion of Hotel Occupancy Tax revenues to benefit arts goals, and providing more housing for creatives and others at risk of being priced out of Austin.

On the matter of the effectiveness of programs initiated by the current mayor and Council, the candidates agreed on the need for accountability, though not on purely economic development criteria.

“It would be an important, if not wonderful thing to take a deep breath and have that sort of analysis, including best practices, so that when we’re compared to other places and other cities, we get an apples-to-apples comparison,” Watson said. “One of the problems in City Hall is we require everybody to be a business, and instead of being a business, we want to be looking at best practices and quality of arts, and not turning a profit.”

Israel said follow-up and oversight by Council is often lacking on the heels of the creation of programs such as the Live Music Fund.

“Council has become too comfortable with having a program, having a grand announcement, and then walk away from the podium and pat themselves on the back,” Israel said. “You’ve got to have that follow-up and accountability, and the financial accountability as well to find out, did it have the intended consequence? And not just a one-time thing, but you’ve got to be tenacious in that follow-up to say, is it still having that intended consequence?”

Asked how to improve interactions between the arts community and City Hall, Israel said her proposal to create an ombudsman position would serve many communities in evaluating how the city manager and staff respond to the public. Watson said he would start by asking arts leaders how they prefer to interact with city government and find out what they expect to achieve from those conversations, noting, “It’s going to be messy from time to time, but it needs to happen.”

On the matter of housing for cultural workers, musicians and artists, Watson said the in-progress migration of creatives into surrounding communities such as Lockhart and Bastrop means the city should take an areawide view of the cultural economy while finding ways to add more housing stock.

“A lot of the cultural and arts community has moved out of Austin already, and they’re probably not going to come back even if we dump a million houses and units on the market in the next 15 days,” Watson said. “We need to figure out how we work with the arts community, perhaps on a more regional basis. They’re going to be in Austin for a lot of the performances and all of that, but we need to start thinking about how we deal with arts more broadly. I’m not sure I know exactly how to do that, but I think we’ll have to do that just because of the natural movement.”

Israel said she supports an aggressive approach toward the city’s building code to create more housing for all of those feeling the pinch of the city’s cost-of-living increase.

“We’re treating these opportunities for infill development as if they were 300-unit apartment complexes. In the 80s we made a very determined move to say no more complexes, no more duplexes. We’re doing it to ourselves,” Israel said. “We’re a very progressive city, but we have very exclusionary, obtuse policies on how we think creatively around land use. To demand that we designate two parking spaces for cars as opposed to, perhaps I could have built an extra studio with that space, that’s one home that we’re saying no, you got to save space for cars.”

Both candidates said the city’s philanthropic community has to play catch-up in encouraging more private-sector giving for arts efforts. Israel said a city matching fund for donations would possibly help encourage more small- and mid-level donors to contribute, while Watson said he’d push for a more coordinated plan among arts nonprofits, with dedicated goals and plans rather than large catch-all funds.

On the question of dedicated city funding for the arts in any future property tax override election, both said they would support that step if there were concrete plans for voters to evaluate how the money would be spent.

“We’re always scraping for money, looking in the couch cushions to try to find the money in order to do things. If we put together what the plan is, what the program is, and we say, OK, here’s our program and it’s going to take us five, 10 or 15 years to achieve that program, then I think you have a better shot of going to the voters and saying, all right, we want your buy-in on this,” Watson said. “With caps and that sort of thing on revenue, we’re going to need to prepare and then go to the voters. So sure I’d be happy to consider that if we put the program in place and have something specific we’re asking.”

Israel said the city needs to identify long-term goals such as how best to redevelop properties such as Hancock Center in ways that benefit different communities, with voters having the ability to support those plans. She said, “What I envision is we’ve got to be proactive and look to the future today for what we can do tomorrow so that we’re not having to scrape over these crumbs in every budget battle. Having dedicated revenue, I think, is something that the public would support.”

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