Tourists’ attendance at county arts and cultural programs up to 61% mark in 2019 fiscal year, more than double the national benchmark

Executive director of Arts and Cultural Alliance provides annual report to County Commission regarding return on investment in grants

This graphic shows the trends over the past five fiscal years regarding tourists’ attendance at arts and cultural events funded by Tourist Development Tax revenue in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County arts and cultural events funded by grants from county “bed tax” revenue continue to well surpass the national standard for drawing tourists, the executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County has reported.

In the 2019 fiscal year, 61% of the attendees at the 39 programs for which the County Commission approved grants were tourists, Jim Shirley told the board members during their Jan. 15 meeting in Sarasota.

“The benchmark nationally is 30%,” he pointed out, so “this is a good number.”

A slide Shirley showed the commission noted that tourists made up 57% of the grant-funded county programs in the 2015 fiscal year. That figure rose to 59% in the 2016 fiscal year and then dropped back to 57% in FY18.

A graphic shows the breakdown of the total attendance at arts and cultural events in the 2019 fiscal year that were supported by county grants. mage courtesy Sarasota County
This shows the changes from the 2018 fiscal year to the 2019 fiscal year in terms of the attendance at arts and cultural programs supported by county grants. mage courtesy Sarasota County

Data showed that in the 2019 fiscal year — which began on Oct. 1, 2018 and ended on Sept. 30, 2019 — a total of 1,868,971 people attended the 39 programs produced by 38 county arts and cultural organizations. Of that figure, Shirley continued, 720,530 were county residents; 501,188 were Florida residents who live outside Sarasota County; 580,128 were visitors from out of state; and 67,125 were international tourists.

“If you can tell or identify anything,” Commissioner Nancy Detert asked, “what do you think caused the jump from 57% [in the 2018 fiscal year] to 61% in attendance in [FY19]?”

“It’s hard to tell,” Shirley replied.

Venice Theatre is among the organizations that received funding in the 2019 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When she then asked whether any “blockbuster event” might have contributed to the year-over-year increase, Shirley told her, “There are always blockbuster events. I cannot over-emphasize how fortunate we are to have the qualityof the arts that we have here.”

His opinion, he continued, is that “as more and more people from the United States and around the world come here and realize the quality of the arts they can enjoy, they tend to come back and bring their friends.”

“I think we definitely need to brag about being a cultural county,” Detert said. “I’m an extremely practical person,” she acknowledged, but attending such programs “really does renew your soul.”

Detert added that she considers Shirley “the king of joy” for the county.

Among other details Shirley noted on Jan. 15 that each organization that wins one of the arts and cultural grants has to match the amount of that grant with its own marketing money. As a result, he said, the marketing expenditures for the grant-funded programs in the 2019 fiscal year added up to $4,358,743 altogether.

The total amount of Tourist Development Tax (TDT) — or “bed tax” — revenue allocated to cultural arts in Sarasota County in FY19 was $2,263,599, Doreen Buonpastore, a fiscal analyst in the county’s Office of Financial Management, told the commission.

A graphic shows how funds from each of the five pennies of the Tourist Development Tax are allocated to county programs and infrastructure. mage courtesy Sarasota County

Each fiscal year, 10% of the TDT revenue the county receives from the 5% tax charged on rentals of accommodations for six months or less time is dedicated to cultural arts, she pointed out, as specified in the county ordinance that governs how that revenue is divvied up.

The portion allocated through the 39 grants in the 2019 fiscal year was $2,057,500.

The Arts and Cultural Alliance’s adopted budget for the 2019 fiscal year was $207,200, as noted in a slide Shirley showed the board. His division’s actual expenditures added up to $206,099.19, the slide said.

“I want to say, ‘Thank you’ to all of you and to the county on behalf of all the arts and cultural organizations for your continued support,” Shirley told the commissioners at the outset of his presentation. “With the uncertainty of state funding,” he added, the grant money “is critical.”

Nonetheless, he continued, “We feel that the return on investment for all of us is excellent.”

Along with their productions, he noted, “All of these organizations have major programs in our school systems. … They’re making an impact on the community in a lot of different ways, and it really affects the fabric of our community.”

Jim Shirley. File photo

He also noted the importance of the museums and Mote Aquarium among the county attractions that “bring a tremendous amount of tourism here.”

Detert responded that she views the arts educational programs as an important factor in preventing dropouts, as they are “one thing that keeps [students] engaged.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler concurred with her. “We have the second best [school] district in the state,” he pointed out. “I think a lot of that has to do with the arts.”

The two factors at the top of his list that “really define Sarasota County,” Ziegler continued, are “our beaches … [and] our arts and culture … I think a lot of [residents] do bring up the fact that there’s so much to do in Sarasota.”

Moreover, Ziegler continued, tourists tell him, “You guys are basically the arts capital of the Southeast.”