Art takes center stage at the latest mayoral forum

Mayoral candidates Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon will square off in the Municipal General Election is Nov. 2.

BY MARK PARKER, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — In a city known for its love of the arts, it is only fitting to hear the candidates address issues as they relate to the arts culture in St. Petersburg.

On Tuesday night, Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon took part in the Mayors Forum on the Arts. The forum was presented by the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance (SPAA) along with community partners the Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions (ISPS) and The Palladium – which hosted the event.

Kimberly Jackson, executive director, Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions

Kimberly Jackson, executive director of ISPS and a board member of the SPAA moderated the event. Local artists and community members submitted questions, and the night began with the candidates explaining what role the arts play in their lives.

Blackmon started by saying that art is a part of St. Pete’s culture and called it omnipresent in the city’s continued growth. He added that art is also influential in the lives of children and recalled how his fifth-grade play was the last time he was on stage at the Palladium. He then noted that preserving the city’s architecture is important – a theme he would repeat throughout the night – while also expanding the entire art scene.

“It’s what’s made our city grow; it’s what’s put us on the map as an international destination for tourism,” said Blackmon. “But just as quick as we’ve grown, we can fall off if we don’t protect our arts scene, help to embrace it, encourage it, and fund it…”

Welch said he took art personally and grew up learning to play the drums in the Gas Plant district. He added that he still plays guitar in church, and more than learning to play an instrument, it has helped him forge relationships that are “still with me to this day.” He said that art is an essential part of an education foundation, and it is also what has made St. Petersburg great.

“St. Pete’s renaissance didn’t happen because of baseball, and I love baseball,” said Welch. “It happened because of the arts and the organic growth of the arts in St. Petersburg that has moved west.”

Jackson brought up the Carter G. Woodson Museum’s recent “Reverberations” exhibit at the James Museum when asking the candidates how they would help to bring more works by nationally recognized Black artists to the city.

Blackmon said it starts with a collaborative approach and praised the Woodson museum’s service to the community “in a limited footprint.” He said that he has vocally and publicly supported the museum during his time on city council.

“Black history is St. Pete’s history,” said Blackmon. “We need to make sure we preserve that culture.”

Blackmon wants to see all the museums in the city come together to help one another and said if someone comes to town to visit one museum, the chances are they will see two or three. He believes that collective strength is what will “keep and bring those big exhibits to town.”

Welch said it has to be intentional and a priority, and it is past time for the Woodson museum to be supported intentionally. He said off the top of his head, he can recall more than a quarter-billion dollars worth of arts and sports projects that were supported during his time as county commissioner, either through programs like Penny for Pinellas or the bed tax, which was proposed as a solution many times throughout the night by Welch.

“If we can do all that, we can support the Woodson,” he said. “Especially at this time in our history, when 35 years later we are talking about intentional equity for the Gas Plant and the Trop site.”

Welch said the city gave $1 million worth of land to the Woodson Museum, but the price tag for the new facility is over $20 million. He also said the city gave $6 million to the American Arts and Crafts Museum and $20 million to the Dali Museum.

“I think equity and the economy require that we move forward with that project,” he said.

Blackmon, as with many issues, would like to see a public-private partnership with the Woodson Museum. In addition to artists having a showcase at the museum, he suggested having a retail aspect. He adds that he is very supportive of the museum and its expansion but said the money is not there.

“We need private dollars,” he said. “We need more governmental dollars; Senator Rouson has been fighting on the state level for it, but it’s not enough. If anyone cares about bringing Black history to our city, please get more engaged in the process because there is a huge shortfall right now, and we need to prioritize it.”

Jackson asked the candidates how they would prioritize the arts in relation to other pressing needs in the city, such as infrastructure and housing. Blackmon answered by stating that the arts are “not a dollar for dollar return.”

He said the arts are a multiple of what the city invests in it because they increase property values, which increases the tax roll and enables the city to put more money into other programs. Blackmon then segued by saying that rising property values are not always good and named neighborhoods like Roser Park and Kenwood that were once fairly affordable before the art renaissance.

“We need to make sure the historic residents of our city are protected and provided for,” stated Blackmon. “Which is why I’d like to give out grants to make sure that some of our artists are minority artists. Some of our artists that we protect and represent are artists from St. Petersburg.”

Welch began his answer by challenging the arts community to “see this through.” He said that talk is meaningless without funding, and without resources, nothing will change, noting that the city needs a recurring funding source for the arts, and the best source is the county bed tax.

“It is more immune to recession than any other source of revenue,” said Welch. “In fact, the bed tax this year is the highest it’s ever been.”

Welch said he will go and make his case to the Tourism Development Council to secure more bed tax funding, “like other counties in Florida have done.”

“I think we can be successful and finally have that recurring source of funding to fund what we’ve been talking about for more than a decade,” said Welch. “It’s time to get it done.”

The Municipal General Election is Nov. 2.

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