County Commission’s investment in arts and cultural programming continues to garner better rate of return than national standard

Commissioners looking ahead to discussions about reapportionment of ‘bed tax’ funds to draw even more tourists

Sarasota Opera is one of the arts organizations that has received Sarasota County grant support. Image courtesy Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County

Sarasota County continues to get a significant return on the annual investment it makes to community arts and cultural organizations in the form of grants, Jim Shirley, executive director of the county’s Arts and Cultural Alliance, has told the County Commission.

In light of that success, board members also talked with Shirley on Jan. 29 about their plans to focus this year on the potential redistribution of Tourist Development Tax — or “bed tax” — revenue. Their goal, Chair Charles Hines indicated, is to determine whether supporting major capital projects, too, will lead to a return on investment similar to the community’s success with the arts.

During his report on the 2018 fiscal year for his organization, Shirley pointed out that the grants from Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue that went to 37 arts and cultural organizations in the county totaled $1,984,552.50. The national benchmark, he continued, is for 30% of participants in the resulting programs to be tourists. However, 57% of the people who went to Sarasota County arts and cultural events in FY18 were visitors, Shirley noted.

During the 2018 fiscal year, Shirley continued, total attendance at the 39 programs the county supported — put on by the 37 organizations — was 1,648,827. Out of that number, he said, 716,463 people were county residents; 401,165 were residents of other communities in Florida; 474,322 were from out of state; and 56,877 were international visitors.

The percentage of tourists attending the arts and cultural events in FY18 was down just a bit from two years ago, he said. In FY16, the figure was 59%, but it was 56% in the 2017 fiscal year, according to a graphic Shirley showed the commissioners.

Shirley also explained that the totals each year do not represent individuals. The same person, he noted, may have gone to several different performances.

A graphic shows details about the attendance figures for the 2018 fiscal year and earlier years. ‘TDC/A’ refers to the county’s Tourist Development Council and the arts grants. Image courtesy Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County

Perhaps even more important than the attendance statistics, Shirley explained, is that research has shown that the cultural tourist “spends proportionally more money” than people who come to the county for other reasons.

Each of the 37 organizations that won county grants last year, Shirley continued, had to match the money dollar for dollar. Therefore, he said, about $3.9 million was available for marketing expenditures.

“We were able to support some really outstanding programs,” Shirley added, pointing to the work of organizations such as Sarasota Opera, the Sarasota Ballet, the Asolo Repertory Theatre, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and Venice Theatre.

The county’s funding was especially important in the last fiscal year, because the State of Florida “essentially decimated the arts budget,” as Shirley characterized the situation to the county’s Tourist Development Council on Jan. 17.

“You can never really depend on those [state] funds,” he told the county commissioners on Jan. 29.

In 2014, the Florida Legislature set aside $43 million for the arts; by 2017, the amount had been whittled down to $25 million, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Last year, the total was approximately $2.6 million, a drop of nearly 90% from the 2017 figure, the Timesadded. Moreover, that money was to be split among 489 organizations approved through the state’s Department of Cultural Affairs to receive support, the Times pointed out.

“Arts groups do appreciate your support,” Shirley told the county commissioners on Jan. 29. The Tourist Development Tax revenue, he continued, “is critical for us to be able to continue the work that these groups do.”

The majority of the organizations that received the county grants in FY18 “have been working for over 60 years,” he added, “to build the quality of cultural/arts programming that we have …”

A committee that works through the Arts & Cultural Alliance reviews all the applications for the county grants, using a detailed process to decide which groups should be awarded the county funds.

Decisions to be made at the county level

Pie charts provide more details about attendance at arts and cultural events for the past several fiscal years. Image courtesy Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County

Following Shirley’s report, Chair Hines asked Shirley whether any research had been undertaken to determine whether the tourists attending the arts and cultural events had come to the county specifically for that purpose. “Or are they here for another reason and then go to a show?”

Questions of the visitors attending the shows supported by the county have been asked in numerous ways, Shirley replied, but they have not delved into that specific topic. “I think that’s probably the next step for us.”

In reflection of Hines’ question, Shirley told the board that, the previous week, four women visiting from Jacksonville had stopped by his office. They were in Sarasota for a week, he continued, and they had tickets for an arts or cultural event every single night of their stay. He asked them whether they would be going to the beach, for example, in the daytime. They replied that that might be a possibility, Shirley continued, but their reason for their trip was to go to performances.

The Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe also has been a recipient of county arts grants. Image courtesy Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County

Hines then asked that Shirley include Hines’ question in future surveys of visitors at arts and cultural events. The commissioners, Hines explained, are “going to have tough decisions” as they consider potential changes in the allocation of Tourist Development Tax revenue. The primary focus, Hines indicated, will be “What’s going to make the biggest difference [in the number of visitors to the county]?”

More demands are being placed on the County Commission for support of major tourist draws in the community, Hines added.

Over the past months, Jennifer Rominiecki, president and CEO of Marie Selby Gardens, has appeared a number of times before the board during Open to the Public portions of County Commission meetings, and members of the Gardens’ board of directors have joined her on some of those occasions. With fundraising proceeding for Selby Gardens’ master plan for new facilities, Rominiecki and those directors have sought county financial support.

When Rominiecki stepped to the podium on Jan. 16 for her latest appearance before the County Commission, Hines referenced the Selby representatives’ “wish to have a fair process to distribute the TDT funds.” He added, “Just to let you know … we heard you. That’s in the process.”

A graphic shows details of the plans for Phase I of Selby Gardens’ master plan. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Rominiecki replied, “I want to thank you for hearing Selby Gardens.” She and her board support “all the capital projects that benefit our community,” she added. “We’re just asking for an equitable and fair process.”

Representatives of Mote Marine Laboratory — as they prepare to build a new aquarium and science center at Benderson Park — and The Bay project in downtown Sarasota also have asked the commission for support.

As the board prepares to take that “deep dive” on the issue of redistributing part of the TDT revenue — as Commissioner Nancy Detert characterized the process on Jan. 29 —“Everything’s so complicated.”

For example, she told Shirley, would it be possible to say that the productions at the Asolo Repertory Theatre put more “heads in beds” in the county, as the tourism industry expression goes, than baseball? Should the focus instead be on county investments in tourist attractions that would create the largest number of jobs, she added.

Detert also referenced Shirley’s remark about the fact that visitors who come to the community for arts and cultural programming spend more than other types of tourists. To come up with a matrix — as Chair Hines has suggested — in determining how best to allocate Tourist Development Tax revenue, Detert said, the board will have to consider all those factors.

About the brand

Jim Shirley. File photo

Additionally on Jan. 29, Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked Shirley about the branding of Sarasota as an arts community.

Shirley said he and his staff and Visit Sarasota County leaders have talked of calling Sarasota the “Cultural Coast” or “the Cultural Capital of Florida.” Shirley added, “And I know that that’s certainly a brand that the cultural arts groups would love to see …”

“I would be very happy with calling this the Cultural Coast of Florida,” he said.

Ziegler pointed out that Visit Sarasota County undertakes a broad array of marketing strategies for the county. “I just encourage you to keep the dialogue coming,” Ziegler told Shirley.

One thing he could say, Shirley responded, is that “Sarasota truly is the best arts and cultural town in the state of Florida. … There are other great towns,” he added, but it would be difficult to point to another community like Sarasota anywhere else in the United States. “It’s really an amazing asset that we have.”