The hopes of the local arts community to get a regular funding stream from tax dollars are on the cusp of being fulfilled.
CANTON Two Stark County commissioners' votes are expected Wednesday to determine if leaders of the local arts community achieve their long-term goal of obtaining a consistent stream of public money to support local art events.
Commissioners Richard Regula and Bill Smith will vote on whether to approve a landmark, 10-year agreement between Visit Canton (the Stark County Convention and Visitors Bureau) and ArtsinStark, the county's arts council. If approved, the county's major arts organizations — as well as individuals, businesses and nonprofit groups — could apply for grant funding from one-sixth of the county's 6 percent hotel tax to cover the cost of marketing art events, exhibitions and performances to out-of-county visitors, as well as to cover some event costs.
Currently, one-sixth of the county's hotel tax yields roughly $500,000 a year.
Because Stark County Commissioner Janet Weir Creighton sits on the boards of Visit Canton and ArtsinStark, she has recused herself from the vote. She has urged support for sending tax money to the arts organization.
For Robb Hankins, the president and CEO of ArtsinStark, establishing the funding stream would be the culmination of his decade-long effort to secure public tax dollars to support the local arts community.
The Ohio Senate in 2015 refused to agree to an Ohio House-passed provision in the state budget that would have allowed voters in Stark County to approve a property tax, cigarette tax or alcoholic beverage tax to support a regional arts and cultural district.
Last year, however, the Ohio General Assembly approved a provision Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Jackson Township, had inserted into the state budget to give Stark County commissioners the authority to double the county's 3 percent hotel bed tax to 6 percent. The commissioners approved that increase in October, with the understanding that one-third of the new money would support the local arts community.
"This is not a new idea. It's a decade of trying to get the stage set for arts tourism," Hankins said in a recent interview. "We spent 10 years planting the seed for this."
Hankins said his pitch for public money hasn't been made solely on the idea that supporting arts enhances the community. It's also an investment with dollars paid mainly by out-of-town visitors using local hotels that will generate a meaningful return in the form of increased business activity and jobs for local companies. The result will not be limited to promoting art for art's sake, he said, but also will generate economic development and more money for Stark County residents.
"People who love the arts believe the arts are important to enrich our souls, but now we're trying to demonstrate the point that you can use the arts to enrich your pocketbook," said Hankins. "I'm going to suggest to you that the arts and the marketing — what we have to have, more tourists — will lead to us being richer, bigger (in population) and younger."
Hankins said the Stark County arts community cannot reach its full potential without public funding. More specifically, he defines that community to include the seven major local arts organizations: Canton Symphony Orchestra, Canton Palace Theatre, Canton Museum of Art, Massillon Museum, Voices of Canton, Canton Ballet and Players Guild Theatre, along with local galleries, museums and historical societies and arts districts in smaller communities throughout the county, like in Alliance, Louisville and Minerva.
He said those who buy tickets for local performing arts shows are not willing to pay a price that would be sufficient for local arts organizations to fully develop their offerings. While people might be willing to spend more than $100 to watch a show on Broadway in New York, they would not be willing to spend that to see a performance at the Player's Guild Theatre, he said to illustrate his point.
"The business model needs a subsidy from somewhere," he said. "Otherwise, the ticket price will be so high people won't be able to come."
He said the dollars that come from ticket sales, donations, memberships and foundation grants aren't enough to cover all the costs, especially marketing and promotion.
"Nobody here has any money to market the arts," Hankins said. "If you don't live here, (without public funding for promoting local art venues), you will never hear the message about how great the arts are here in Canton and Stark County. ... We have a hidden treasure in the arts in Stark County, and we need resources to market that hidden treasure to the world."
Quest for funding
Hankins, who became the head of ArtsinStark in 2005, said he has worked for art organizations for 30 years in nine states. In those other places, many funded their local arts community with either a cigarette tax or a hotel bed tax.
He said he couldn't make the case to Stark County residents to support such a dedicated tax until he and other arts community leaders could demonstrate that local art wasn't just about art but about boosting the local economy.
Exhibit A in his argument was the groundbreaking exhibition "Kimonos as Art: The Landscapes of Itchiku Kubota" in 2009 at the Canton Museum of Art that was sponsored by the Timken Foundation. Hankins said the show, which featured gigantic kimonos, attracted 100,000 visitors and generated an estimated $6 million of economic impact for Stark County. No scientific study was conducted to support those estimates, but Hankins said he believes 20 percent of the 100,000 visitors were tourists.
"It was then that we felt we had started to build the case that you could use the arts for tourism and economic development," said Hankins, who added that hotel bed tax dollars would be used to promote at least three "blockbuster shows" like "Kimonos" over the next decade.
Exhibit B was the development of First Friday in downtown Canton, where visitors flock to bars, coffee shops and art galleries the first Friday evening of each month.
ArtsinStark's 10-year 20/20 vision plan for the local arts in 2012 envisioned trying to secure through local governments at least $200,000 a year in public funding for public art, 300 small to -medium pieces countywide and at least six "major works of public art."
Commissioner Creighton was one of the members of the task force that drew up the plan.
"I always bought into this concept of cultural tourism and how it would help the economic engine of the county," she said.
In 2015, Visit Canton's strategic plan listed enhancing and growing cultural tourism to enhance the local economy as one of five initiatives, said Allyson Bussey, Visit Canton's president.
Hankins successfully lobbied Schuring to place into the 2015 state budget bill the provision that would allow Stark County voters to approve a cigarette tax to fund the operating and capital expenses of a regional arts and cultural district. Hankins said the proposal was modeled after Cuyahoga County's cigarette tax.
The tax would have been limited to 30 cents per pack of cigarettes. It's not clear how much the tax would have raised, as the state's Legislative Service Commission apparently did not come up with an estimate.
Schuring said he can't recall the exact reason why the Senate killed the provision, but did say the tobacco industry had opposed it.
Bussey said she and Visit Canton's board Vice Chairman Ed Murray, along with Hankins, met with Schuring about a year ago, in a meeting Creighton helped to arrange. They requested that the General Assembly authorize the commissioners to double the county's hotel bed tax. With those representing local hotels generally believing the proposal would increase business despite increasing the cost of a hotel room, the proposal faced no significant opposition and, Schuring was able to get the provision approved as part of the state budget.
"Art enhances our quality life," Schuring sasid. "It actually helps our economy because it makes our community more attractive. ... (We) want to use the bed tax in a way that increases tourism, that increases the number of visitors to our area and increases income."
By state law, hotel bed tax dollars generally can be used only "for promotion, advertising and marketing of the region in which the county is located."
Hankins originally envisioned using money on renovations for the Canton Cultural Center for the Arts and other "cultural tourism facilities," but attorneys made it clear the law would not allow it.
In October, the commissioners approved the hotel tax increase, which took effect in November. Visit Canton and ArtsinStark then spent many hours between October and February hammering out the agreement establishing an elaborate grants program overseen by a committee and ensuring the bed tax money for the arts would be spent only on permitted purposes.
After presenting the agreement with ArtsinStark to the commissioners last week, Bussey said she anticipates the funds starting this year being spent on ads in niche publications, radio, cable TV, billboards, on the internet, direct mail and email marketing targeted to those outside the county.
Creighton said no elected officials would decide how the grant funds are disbursed. Those decisions will be up to the committee.
"We've taken the politics out of it," she said.
Reach Robert at 330-580-8327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter: @rwangREP