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Arts Groups Weighing In On Dallas Council Races

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Jerome Weeks

Today is the first day of early voting for candidates and issues on the May 11 ballot. For arts groups in Dallas it’s an important election. In recent years the city has cut funding for the arts even as the number of events have grown.

This concert is in Sammons Park just outside the Winspear Opera House. And it’s just one of three different public concerts going on this particular evening, all within three blocks inside the Arts District.

The city council election in May is the first since the completion of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, Klyde Warren Park and the Perot Museum. More than a dozen cultural groups are now physical and political neighbors in District 14.

Dallas does have arts facilities outside of downtown – like the Oak Cliff Cultural Center. But the Arts District concentrated cultural activity specifically to help revitalize downtown. So the city has a significant financial stake in its success.

Chris Heinbaugh is vice president for external affairs at the AT&T Performing Arts Center.

“The district has become a driving force in tourism, in economic development. And so we want to make sure all our council have a strong understanding of that and a commitment to keeping that going, said Heinbaugh.”

By commitment, Heinbaugh means funding. In 2010 and 2011, the city was forced to cut back severely on its support of all its cultural facilities around town – including the Performing Arts Center.

Ever since, arts groups have been looking for more reliable funding. One suggestion is a public improvement district or PID. These levy a small, additional tax on property owners in an area to help maintain and improve such things as lighting or landscaping. District 14 candidate Bobby Abtahi spoke at a recent public forum:

“We need to look at adjacent commercial property owners and see how we can work either in some sort of tax increment deal or some sort of public-private partnership because everything around us is benefiting from the Arts District,” Abtahi said.

Abtahi believes voters would pass that because “they have to.”

“Like everything else, you’ve gotta sell it right,” he said.

But there already are public improvement districts in the area. Catherine Cuellar is the new executive director of Dallas Arts District. It’s a part of Downtown Dallas, Inc, which is a PID that’s worked to upgrade safety and sidewalks.

“Downtown Dallas Inc., Uptown, Arts District, Office of Cultural Affairs – all have different sources of public funding as well as private funding. And hopefully, those groups are being strategic so that they’re not competing for dollars,” Cuellar said.

Yet last month, Klyde Warren Park chairman Jody Grant started competing for public dollars. He proposed a tax assessment district – only for Klyde Warren Park. It caught the Arts District groups by surprise. Despite their opposition, Grant went ahead and filed the paperwork with the city.

But among the seven city council candidates in District 14, asking for even a small increase in taxes is where support for cultural groups breaks down. In a recent public forum, all seven candidates expressed strong personal support for the arts. They recalled their own experiences; they extolled what the arts can do for a city. When it came to taxes, though, some candidates, like Chuck Kobdish, took a step back.

“I am not a fan of any sort of increase in taxes or fees. If we are certain that there’s nothing else left to do then we can take a look at some of these other means of steady funding,” Kobdish said.

Only one idea received universal backing: A third of all visitors to downtown Dallas cite arts events as a reason for their visit. In that case, the candidates agreed, the city needs to do a better job promoting its cultural attractions.

We asked all the candidates in contested Dallas City Council races about the arts. See how they responded.