When Cuyahoga County voters approved a special tax on cigarettes to support arts and culture three years ago, glass sculptor Michael J. Mikula was impressed.
At the time, he wasn’t sure that the average resident recognized the economic and creative value provided to the region.
”But people realized investing in the arts community is smart money,” said Mikula, 46, of Cleveland, who received a $20,000 fellowship this year thanks to the tax.
The local tax, which adds 34.5 cents to the cost of a cigarettesmall.biz/buy/marlboro, raises nearly $20 million a year to be distributed as competitive grants through the group Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.
The money has gone as operating revenue to organizations ranging from the Cleveland Orchestra to the Lakewood Historical Society. It has also been handed out for such projects as free concerts and arts fairs.
And it has benefited individual artists such as Mikula.
Cuyahoga County arts and cultural leaders say the money has been a godsend for an industry that has been hit hard by a decline in endowment revenue and philanthropic giving from corporations and foundations. And, they say, the tax has probably saved some programs from disappearing.
Perhaps as important, those leaders add, it has sent a strong message around the country.
”It makes a real good statement about our county that we value this,” said Bonnie Cummings, interim executive director at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. ”With all the challenges that cities have these days, that’s a real nice carrot to hold out for artists and nonprofits.”
Now, the Summit County arts and cultural community is pushing for the same type of cigarette tax, and pointing to its northern neighbor to show how successful it could be.
”It has worked so well in Cuyahoga County, we would be fools not to follow their lead,” said Jessie Raynor, director of the Akron Area Arts Alliance. ”It has been proven across the country for the last few decades that when money is invested in the arts that neighborhoods change, downtowns revitalize, whole areas perk up.
”The arts attract educated citizens and help maintain educated citizens. You just can’t have a progressive city and community without creative people in it.”
The local arts and cultural community passed its first big hurdle last month. Summit County Council formally requested that the Ohio General Assembly amend state law to allow the county to put the tax on the ballot.
The way state law is written, only Cuyahoga County can ask voters for the tax.
Supporters still must lobby state legislators to make the change, continue to build a local coalition, develop a plan tailored to the county and persuade county leaders to place the issue before voters.
”We have a long road to go here,” Raynor said.
Several state lawmakers from Summit County said they’re not opposed to letting voters decide whether to fund the arts through a local tax, but that doesn’t mean the issue will slide through the Statehouse.
”I think that the only way it would make it through is if the Summit County delegation, all of us in the Senate and the House, supported it, and we haven’t had a delegation-wide discussion on it,” said Sen. Kevin Coughlin, R-Cuyahoga Falls.
A similar effort was under way in 2005, but the Summit delegation wasn’t unanimous in its backing, he said.
Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, said lawmakers also want to see broad-based support outside of County Council and the arts community.
”It’s very important for any public purpose of this kind to build a rock-solid foundation,” he said.
Lawmakers also noted that it’s a tough time to ask for a local tax.
”Taxation is always a controversial issue, but it’s been heightened now because of the state of the economy,” Rep. Vernon Sykes, D-Akron, said.
Sykes said local arts groups approached him about the idea in the spring during budget deliberations, but he wanted to see more local support and an official request.
He is chairman of the House Finance and Appropriations Committee and has enough clout to insert the tax proposal in any number of bills.
”Now that they’ve got this proclamation, we will consider it,” Sykes said.
”Right now, we are dealing with an $851 million hole in the budget, so I doubt we will be able to give it any consideration until after the first of the year.”
State Rep. Brian Williams, D-Akron, said he attended several meetings with local arts groups and supports their efforts, but he also is concerned the timing is not right.
”There’s never going to be a good time,” Raynor said.
”I’m disappointed because I thought the resolution was a big hurdle. All I can say is we will keep in touch with the legislators and ask them, ‘How much more do [you] need?’ ”
Local arts and cultural groups say they need financial help and point to their impact on the local economy.
Summit County is home to 1,150 arts-related businesses employing 5,780 people, according to Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit advocacy group with offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City.
”Arts and culture is a vital segment of the economy that is historically underfunded in Summit County,” said Mitchell Kahan, director and chief executive of the Akron Art Museum. ”To remain competitive with other counties in the state and neighboring states, we need to have support from every sector of the community.
”Private individuals and charitable foundations are playing a huge role, and they cannot sustain arts and culture alone. There needs to be a public component.”
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History has benefited greatly, receiving $620,104 in a general operating grant in 2008. The museum hosted the traveling exhibit Race: Are We So Different? last year and was able to offer some of the programming for free, Cummings said.
The museum has had to trim expenses, but has been able to avoid cuts in research, science and programming because of the cigarette tax.
”It’s just wonderful to know that money has been committed,” Cummings said.
For Mikula, the $20,000 grant has been a blessing. He is using it to buy tools, update his Web site (http://www.mikulaglass.com) and hire more temporary workers to help him. It also means he doesn’t have to travel to as many art shows, so he can spend more time producing his work.
”This has allowed me to relax a little bit about what’s in the bank and concentrate on the work, and that’s where my attention needs to be,” Mikula said. ”I think I’m making the best work of my career.”
Artists from other areas of the country are interested when they learn that his work is supported through a public levy.
”I’ve had people say, ‘Man, I wish we had something like that where we live,’ ” Mikula said. ”I would encourage Summit County to follow Cuyahoga County’s lead. I think there are going to be a lot of communities around the country who will take a long, strong look at this.”
Fashion designer Valerie Mayen, 28, of Cleveland, owner of Yellowcake (http://yellowcakeshop.com), said she was ready to leave town when she received a fellowship.
”I was really blown away,” she said. ”It gave me more incentive to stick around. . . . I really feel that artists are going to become a more valuable commodity to the city.”
Leaders offer advice
Cuyahoga County leaders have plenty of advice as Summit County pursues a dedicated tax.
If the effort is successful, they urge local leaders to make sure the grant process is public and transparent. Let people know how and where the money is being spent, they said.
As for mounting a campaign, they said it’s important to promote the intrinsic and economic impact of arts and culture.
”If the arts and cultural groups go away tomorrow, there would be people who now come into Summit County who would go elsewhere,” said Thomas B. Schorgl, president and chief executive of the Cleveland-based Community Partnership for Arts and Culture. ”And when they come into Summit County, they are clearly spending dollars from outside the county. There is a true economic impact.”
It is a difficult financial time for local arts and cultural groups. For example, the Carousel Dinner Theatre in Akron has closed, and the Akron Art Museum has made internal cuts and has postponed some exhibitions and educational programs. The Akron Civic Theatre and All-American Soap Box Derby also have teetered financially for years.
”I don’t think people here realize what a small role public tax dollars play here compared to other places in this country and especially abroad,” Kahan said. ”We are so far behind in city, county and state tax dollars supporting arts and culture.”
He and Raynor, though, downplayed the proposed cigarette tax itself.
”I don’t want people to get all up in arms right now,” Raynor said. ”The conversation shouldn’t even be tax right now. It should just be about the opportunity. The conversation of what the arts means to this area needs to be had, even if it doesn’t lead to a tax.”
Opposition fired up
But many people already are focused on the tax.
Howard Towler, 65, was dumbfounded when he learned about the proposal during a recent visit to the Smoker’s Den on East Tallmadge Avenue in Akron.
”They’re going to do what?” the Akron resident asked. ”You mean to tell me as I stand here as a veteran that you’re going to raise money for arts, but you’re going to lay off police and firefighters?
”What kind of culture are you going to have when people are broke?”
Smoker’s Den owner Tannous Barakat also was angry about the possibility of a new cigarette tax. He pointed to some empty shelves that used to be filled with cigarettes.
High taxes and a smoking ban at bars and restaurants have killed the cigarette business, said Barakat, who owns the cigar and cigarette shop in Akron and the Funny Stop Comedy Club in Cuyahoga Falls.
”People who buy cigars don’t care. They have money,” Barakat said. ”But people don’t buy cigarettes.”
Bill Luplow, 66, a retired machinist from Lakemore, also is unhappy about the proposal — and he doesn’t even smoke.
He said it’s unfair to ask smokers to pay for arts and culture, and then turn around and not permit them to smoke at museums or concerts.
”It just doesn’t seem right to me,” Luplow said. ”You’re treating them as second-class citizens.”
Raynor said voters in Cuyahoga County were given the chance to vote on a cigarette tax for the arts and supported the idea.
”We feel Summit County needs to have that same discussion,” she said. ”We’re not picking on smokers, but all the advice we are getting tells us that is the most likely to succeed.”
She said the Akron Area Arts Alliance has 46 member organizations, a majority of which have budgets of less than $100,000 a year. And she said the revenue from the cigarette tax would go to both large and small arts groups.
”It took Cleveland 10 years. We can’t take 10 years. We would like to see something on the ballot in two or three years. We’ll just keep talking to them,” Raynor said.
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