Vice mayor and Commissioner Brody oppose city manager’s suggestion for diverting economic development revenue from city’s COVID-19 small business grant program
Editor’s note: The Sarasota News Leader is providing general reporting on the novel coronavirus to readers for free as a public service.
Sarasota Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commission Hagen Brody protested the proposal, but their colleagues agreed this week to allow $25,000 in grant funds to be allocated to community artists for the creation of murals in the city.
During a discussion on June 15, as the commissioners conducted their regular meeting remotely, City Manager Tom Barwin introduced the suggestion by saying he had talked with Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County.
“There’s been such a positive response,” Barwin pointed out, to murals of nurses painted at 1717 Second St. in downtown Sarasota. If the commission were willing to put up $25,000 he continued, Shirley had indicated that his staff “could identify a number of artists and a number of walls [for such artwork].”
In his May 22 newsletter, Barwin wrote about the murals, explaining, “With the very appropriate title, ‘Sarasota Heroes,’ the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County collaborated with Sarasota Magazine to commission the pieces to express the community’s gratitude for the profound efforts of this special group of individuals who are putting the greater good of public health ahead of themselves as they risk possible exposure to this highly contagious disease.”
He noted in the newsletter that artist Karen Chandler created the mural featured with his comments. It took her “just four weeks,” he wrote, noting that “the quality of the murals is impressive and the message inspiring.”
Then Barwin added, “This art project has inspired an effort to find additional locations and funds for five other murals in Sarasota to be painted this summer as a way to aid local artists who have been hit financially during the pandemic. If you are interested in helping with the pandemic recovery mural project please contact CityNews@SarasotaFL.Gov.”
During the June 15 City Commission meeting, Barwin suggested that some of the new murals could emphasize a “Shop Local” theme, “to inspire folks to frequent our local stores and services.”
He called the $25,000 “a relatively small amount of money” to help artists in the city who have struggled financially as a result of the novel coronavirus public health emergency.
Further, Barwin indicated that the city contribution could lead to matching money from other sources for the program.
“Where’s that $25,000 coming from?” Freeland Eddie asked.
It would come out of the city’s Economic Development Fund, Barwin replied, which comprises revenue from the Local Business Tax the city charges.
That is the primary fund from which the commissioners approved dispersal of $5,000 grants to small businesses affected by the COVID-19 economic downturn. The May 4 board vote on that plan was unanimous. (See the related article in this issue.)
“I agree with the sentiment,” Freeland Eddie told Barwin. However, she added, she felt the Economic Development Fund money should go to businesses. “That’s what we voted for it to be used for,” she stressed.
Then Commissioner Willie Shaw referenced murals being painted in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis on May 25. “Are we going to have the African American artists included in this [city program]?” Shaw asked Barwin. “Everybody gets to tell our story; we never get to tell it. … Those of us who are most impacted are excluded.”
“It would be an absolute requirement,” Barwin responded, adding that he hoped enough matching funds could be secured to double or triple the $25,000 commitment from the city.
Debating the source of the funds
“Don’t we have money in our [Public Art Fund] that can go toward that purpose?” Commissioner Brody asked Barwin.
Leslie Butterfield, chair of the city’s Public Art Committee, hopes to address that at the group’s next meeting, Barwin replied. (That session has been scheduled for July 8, the city website says. Meetings of all city advisory boards were cancelled in March, in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Gradually, city leaders have been letting certain groups resume public meetings, though via videoconferencing technology.)
Barwin added that Butterfield had told him she hoped the committee members would be agreeable to using some of the Public Art Fund money to supplement the $25,000.
“I think that’s probably the more appropriate pot for the money to come from [for the murals],” Brody said of that art fund.
“I’ve long advocated for more … out-of-the-box public art,” he continued, including works on electrical boxes “and eyesores around the city,” as other municipalities have allowed.
Brody concurred with Freeland Eddie that the Economic Development Fund revenue was not appropriate for the mural program.
“I think it is a good idea, to get some money [from the Public Art Fund],” Commissioner Liz Alpert said. If “Shop Local” murals were going to be included among the artwork, she continued, then it made sense to her that the Economic Development Fund would provide some of the money.
“I’m in support of this, as well,” Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said, adding that perhaps more of the $25,000 could come out of the Public Art Fund.
Ahearn-Koch also agreed with Alpert’s statement about the “Shop Local” aspect of the program. “That’s where the rational nexus comes in.”
Barwin told the commissioners he believed the city has “well over a million dollars left” in the Economic Development Fund, given the progress thus far of the grant program for small businesses. The $25,000 for the mural program, he pointed out, would be “just a tiny fraction [of that].”
Shaw then made a motion to implement the mural grants program with $25,000 combined from the Public Art Fund and the Economic Development Fund.
At that point, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown asked to be recognized. “With all due respect to Mr. Barwin,” Brown began, city staff members who work with the Public Art Committee were not participating in the discussion that evening. Therefore, Brown said, he wanted to caution the board members about allocating anything from the Public Art Fund. The money in that account has been committed to sculptures that will be placed in the interiors of new city roundabouts, he pointed out. “I’m not too sure” how much money would be left after those commitments were satisfied, Brown added.
Instead of responding directly to Brown, Barwin told the commissioners that, as he understood it, Shaw’s motion called for the $25,000 to be made up from money in the Public Art Fund as well as the Economic Development Fund.
“That wasn’t the way I understood the motion,” Alpert replied.
Shaw then made it clear that he had “no problem” with staff taking funds from both accounts.
Perhaps $15,000 could be removed from the Economic Development Fund, Barwin responded, with the remainder from the Public Art Fund.
“Again,” Deputy City Manager Brown said, “I’m just sharing with you that I don’t know what’s left in the Public Art Fund.”
“We’ll find out,” Barwin replied.
Ahearn-Koch sought clarification from Shaw that up to $25,000 could be taken out of the Economic Development Fund. If the Public Art Fund can spare money, she added, “That’s wonderful.”
However, she emphasized, the amount from the Economic Development Fund could not exceed $25,000.
Shaw agreed with her refinement of the motion, and Alpert seconded it.
Brody suggested staff first find out how much money could be removed from the Public Art Fund and report that figure to the board members, who could decide how to proceed.
“We had a lot of businesses that were excluded … from our business assistance grant program,” he pointed out.
Alpert remained steadfast in supporting the motion. The murals, she said, would create an atmosphere that would enhance economic development in the city.
Freeland Eddie joined Brody in arguing once more against use of the Economic Development Fund for the mural program. However, she continued, “I am fine with us going to [the Public Art Committee … and saying, ‘Hey, what do you have in your budget?’”
“I am in support of this motion,” Ahearn-Koch reiterated her earlier statement.
Ahearn-Koch then asked City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs to poll the board members. The resulting vote was 3-2, with Freeland Eddie and Brody in the minority.