In Fort Worth, hope for the arts could be buried in a fight

Fort Worth City Council members gave arts supporters hope on Tuesday, even as they cut funding for a key arts umbrella group by 25 percent.

Impassioned speeches from council members Sal Espino, Joel Burns and Danny Scarth were followed by just about everyone on the council, including Mayor Betsy Price, vowing to find a long-term, stable source of public money for local arts organizations.

But what those arts supporters should know is this: Hope is free. The City Council can afford to give it away.

Turning hope into reality is going to be very hard. Two members of one of Fort Worth's most prominent families already seem to have opposite points of view on the matter.

Espino said the council members should come back halfway through the 2013 fiscal year (which begins Oct. 1) and see if there's more money than expected and they can restore the $266,564 cut from the Arts Council of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

It's difficult to see how that will work.

The Arts Council takes what money the city provides (which even after the cut is expected to be $799,691 next year) and decides which programs from local arts organizations will get to spend it.

The organization is already putting together its budget and its list of grantees for the next calendar year. Come January, will they say, "We can only give you this much, but we hope we can give you more in a few months"?

But the real egg laid by the City Council is the idea that a stable revenue source for the Arts Council is out there somewhere and, with a dedicated effort, can be found. Is it a golden egg or a rotten one?

The most frequently mentioned revenue source is the hotel occupancy tax, which is expected to bring in $15 million to $20 million next year.

State law says hotel tax money can be used to support arts organizations. City Budget Director Horatio Porter says the Arts Council still has a lot of work to do to get its records in shape to show that it will meet the primary purpose of the tax, which is to support tourism.

Jody Ulich, president of the Arts Council, says the organization also has targeted the $15 million surplus in the Culture and Tourism Fund, which is supported by the hotel tax. But the council voted on March 23, 2010, to reserve that money for improvements at the Will Rogers Memorial Center and the Fort Worth Convention Center.

Earlier this year, city Public Events Director Kirk Slaughter outlined for the council about $20 million in projects completed or in progress since that vote, with another $32.5 million in spending planned or contemplated. The council approved spending $122,000 for a new master plan for Will Rogers Memorial Center facilities.

And there's the problem for the Arts Council. The Convention Center and Will Rogers have a lock on most of the hotel tax money.

Will Rogers is backed by a powerful nonprofit organization, Event Facilities Fort Worth, chaired by prominent investor/developer Ed Bass. One of the facilities expected to be announced for the complex is a new arena, which has long been backed by Bass and some members of the City Council.

The Arts Council and its supporters can't expect to get a dime of the hotel tax money without a fight, even if that fight is conducted quietly behind the scenes.

It's worth noting that prominent local investor Robert Bass, one of the brothers of Ed Bass, recently spoke at a City Council meeting in favor of city funding for the arts.

If those two do end up on opposite sides, this is going to be interesting.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram / Arlington and Northeast Tarrant County.


Twitter: @mnorman9