Editorials

Arts champions make good case to raise Tacoma tax

French glass artist Antoine Pierini gets some assistance from Ryan Eubank of Hilltop Artists (left) during a visit to Jason Lee Middle School’s hot shop. Hilltop Artists is just one organization that could expand deeper into Tacoma neighborhoods if a sales-tax measure on the November ballot is approved.
French glass artist Antoine Pierini gets some assistance from Ryan Eubank of Hilltop Artists (left) during a visit to Jason Lee Middle School’s hot shop. Hilltop Artists is just one organization that could expand deeper into Tacoma neighborhoods if a sales-tax measure on the November ballot is approved. News Tribune file photo, 2012

Ask tourists why they come to Tacoma and there’s a good chance the word “museum” will pop up.

In the art world, Tacoma is already on the map, thanks to community support that spans decades, from the Tacoma Symphony to the Broadway Center to the first-class arts and history treasure troves on Museum Row.

But some of the smaller cultural organizations we count as regional assets often struggle financially. Worse, not all are accessible, especially to marginalized parts of our community.

That’s why Tacoma voters this fall will be asked to consider a ballot proposal called Tacoma Creates.

We encourage a “yes” vote, despite reservations related to its regressive revenue source.

The measure would raise roughly $5 million a year for cultural outreach by hiking the city’s sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent, or one penny for every $10 spent. For comparison, that’s also what Pierce County residents have been paying since 2012 to stand up a new South Sound 911 regional dispatch agency.

The fact that more pressing issues plague our city isn’t lost on us — affordable housing immediately leaps to mind — and Tacoma’s steep sales-tax rate can’t be ignored.

The combined state and local sales tax rate here already hovers just above the 10 percent line, matching Seattle as one of the highest in the state.

But we also know the significant role art plays in our identity and that a vibrant culture enhances our attractiveness to businesses considering a move to T-Town. Why not aspire to match Seattle in that regard, too, albeit on a Tacoma scale?

One of Proposition One’s selling points is that revenue would go back into the community via tourism and job creation. Today, Tacoma’s cultural organizations generate about $137 million per year and create more than 3,600 jobs, according to a 2016 Americans for the Arts study.

A sustained funding source would enable these groups to take programs directly out to neighborhoods that are stuck in what some call an “arts desert.” Financial and transportation barriers stop many folks from participating in cultural activities.

It’s why the measure’s supporters include the Tacoma School District, Graduate Tacoma, Metro Parks and a host of labor, social service and community leaders.

David Fischer, executive director of Tacoma’s Broadway Center, said he and other dreamers started talking about this more than a decade ago, before being derailed by the Great Recession. He said the arts, culture, science and heritage objectives were fleshed out after conversations with residents.

“We went into neighborhoods and asked them, ‘What would make a difference in your community?’” Fischer said, “And that’s how we worked out specific intentions.”

Those intentions, Fischer said, “are primarily focused on the people who can least afford it.”

He assures the revenues won’t be gobbled up by the Goliaths in town. Smaller arts organizations could also apply for funds.

Tacoma Creates isn’t just about art. Though less fully developed, it plans to expand science programs like robotics, as well as heritage education including greater access to youth-oriented plays about key Pacific Northwest historical events.

Best of all, it would break these programs free from the traditional downtown mentality. Taken to street fairs and neighborhood centers, they could engage people, both young and old, near where they live.

Management duties would be delegated to the city’s Office of Arts & Cultural Vitality, which already works with non-profit and community-based organizations.

Accountability provisions include regular audits, a seven-year sunset clause and an advisory board appointed by the City Council.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to pinpoint the precise return on investment from programs like these. Better thinkers than we, from Aristotle to Descartes, have articulated the abstract benefits of art.

But Kimberly Keith, executive director of Hilltop Artists, which introduces underserved youth to the magic of glassblowing, doesn’t deal in abstractions; she gets a front row seat to the impact that art has on urban kids. She has a string of anecdotes, all with common themes: Art creates community connections, higher graduation rates and hope.

“We serve over 650 kids per year across six programs,” Keith said, “but we can expand who we serve.”

Here’s what we do know: Art shouldn’t be just for the elite. Woe to any city where cultural enrichment is largely the realm of those with high disposable incomes and perhaps a downtown condo.

Tacoma takes pride in its museums, diverse art organizations and talented musicians, actors and artists. A “yes” vote on Tacoma Creates would help keep it that way.

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