from the director: lodging tax for culture

The dawn of a new day?

Over the past several years, I’ve written many messages about 4Culture’s legislative efforts in Olympia.  Lodging taxes are the primary source of the revenues we use to support our major arts, heritage and preservation funding programs. In 2009, approximately 300 arts and heritage organizations received operating support, 95 individual artists  and 75 groups were awarded grants to do projects, thirty-nine heritage organizations and specialists received project support, and dozens of cultural facilities received capital or equipment funding.

Beginning in 2013, all of the revenue currently supporting arts and culture in King County will be re-directed to service debt on stadia.   4Culture will only have access to the interest generated by the endowment we have been building, in compliance with state law, since 2001.   An estimated $1.4 million per year.   At that level (roughly an 80% decrease), almost all of our funding programs and initiatives will be eliminated.

I attended two very interesting hearings in Olympia last week on bills in the House and Senate that would change the law so arts and heritage programs in King County would receive a portion of future lodging tax revenues.   Testifying on behalf of the two bills was Deputy County Executive and former State Senator Fred Jarrett.   Mr. Jarrett told the House and Senate Committees that vibrant arts and culture help King County attract innovative new businesses and the high quality workforce that will drive the region’s economy.  “How do we know that,” he asked, “because they tell us.”

One thing I’ve learned over the past six years is how difficult it is to have a bill become law. I’ve also gained an appreciation for the difficult task legislators face every year, not just in challenging economic times, but even in times when the state is in relative financial health.   We citizens, I’ve noticed, have no shortage of good ideas for how the state should allocate its resources.

Arts, heritage and culture live in the realm of “quality of life,” which sounds sort of soft and inessential in comparison to “basic health,” or “education” or “public safety.”    I, like Jarrett, would argue that investment in the region’s quality of life is the foundation on which a growing and robust future economy is built, spinning off increased tax revenues that enable us to better provide for the basic needs of the community.

I’ve seen lots of economic impact data over the years, and it is impressive; I’ve heard about the competitive advantage creative communities have in attracting a high demographic workforce.   All of that is real.  We have cultural assets that many communities can only dream of.  But the value of arts and culture isn’t just its impact on the economy.   It’s the intrinsic value to the young student who finds his or her calling playing in an orchestra or singing in a choir or performing in a musical; to the senior citizens learning to paint or sculpt; to the insurance broker playing his or her trombone in a community orchestra.    It’s the local history museum whose work helps deepen citizens’ connections to place.   It’s the pride communities take in their public art, their historic district, and their community festivals.

Economic impact, attracting innovative businesses and an educated work force, enhancing sense of place, providing a comprehensive education, increasing tourism, investing in the imagination and creativity of our citizenry: it just makes common sense.   Doesn’t it?

Jim Kelly

Photo: headed to Olympia at dawn for legislative hearings, 4Culture, 2010