While Kansas City Mayor Sly James’ proposal for a giant city arts festival has been well received by many arts supporters, it is also drawing some criticism over the proposed amount and source of public funds for the event.
The City Council is expected to vote Thursday on a plan to use $250,000 in Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund money as seed money for the event.
The council’s finance committee last week endorsed the spending, after James outlined an ambitious vision for a signature festival to highlight Kansas City’s visual, musical, dance, tech and other arts accomplishments. He called for a three-day festival, possibly next September in Swope Park, to “showcase the creative potential that is in this city.”
The $250,000 would be one of the largest neighborhood tourism fund grants provided in at least the past five years, for a project that’s not nearly as well defined as the city’s process usually requires. The Neighborhood Tourist Development Fund committee, which recommends projects for funding to the City Council, normally requires a complete application and budget for an established event.
When the proposal first came to the NTDF committee in May, it was tabled because it lacked detail. However, when it was brought back in June, the committee unanimously approved it, although it still lacked a complete budget.
City officials acknowledged this is an unusual approach but defended the proposal and funding under the city code. They said the event is a work in progress because the city wants to involve as many arts organizations as possible in its planning.
Other organizations that seek NTDF money “are producing an event, and they’ve got all their ducks in a row,” said Megan Crigger, director of the city’s Office of Culture and Creative Services. “They’re coming to the city to help supplement that project. This is a case where we are hatching, we are devising a program ourselves.”
Several people knowledgeable about Kansas City’s neighborhood tourism funding process raised concerns with The Star but agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. They said they did not want to jeopardize their ability to continue to work on neighborhood tourism efforts.
“They (the city) are asking for money that has an incomplete application,” said one. “If this had been any other applicant, there is no way this committee would have looked at it.”
They questioned whether the proposal fully conforms to the city code requirements on NTDF funding, which mandate that the money go to a “not-for-profit neighborhood organization” and only for eligible expenses.
In this case, the city ordinance appears to direct the funding to the city. The ordinance says the money is for “festival production, curatorial and artistic services,” while the code specifically prohibits spending on consultants/planners, directors and technicians.
Assistant City Attorney Kathy Adams said Wednesday the ordinance would be amended to make clear that the money will go instead to the Mid-America Regional Council, a regional nonprofit that frequently serves as a fiscal agent to receive grant funds. MARC officials confirmed Wednesday that their board voted in February to accept and spend funds on behalf of the Office of Culture and Creative Services for the festival “until a 501(c)(3) organization is established.”
Nearly everyone interviewed said they supported the idea of the festival, a key recommendation of the mayor’s task force on the arts in 2013.
Crigger drafted and presented the festival application to the NTDF board. She conceded NTDF normally contracts with smaller neighborhood organizations to promote tourism but said a large arts festival is a legitimate use of the funds under both state law and city code. “This is kind of a paradigm shift,” she said. “This is seed funding that will support multiple artists, multiple organizations.”
According to a list of funded projects provided by the city, this $250,000 grant would be the largest grant in the past five years except for $600,000 provided for the Major League Baseball All Star Game in 2012-2013. The other recipients of large sums, including for Riverfest and Celebration at the Station, were granted $50,000. Most events receive less than $20,000.
James said the funding was justified.
“The money is there for a purpose, and the purpose is to spur tourism and neighborhood development,” he said. “There’s never been anything like this other than the ethnic festival in Swope Park, so I think it’s a big deal and I think it costs big money, and I think it’s perfectly appropriate.”
Crigger said the fund now has $1 million in its unspent “fund balance.” But others noted there are always more requests than funding, and money could be spent on more established events.
Crigger acknowledged the city may seek another $250,000 in public funds in the next fiscal year beginning May 1, because the festival would not be held until next September. But she said it might be general fund or convention and tourism money, not neighborhood tourism dollars. The city will also seek to raise significant private dollars.
Representatives of several large organizations said anything that lifts the national profile of Kansas City’s arts accomplishments was welcome. But they said they would need more information and wanted to make sure it won’t limit resources for their own events. They also noted that holding an event in September could compete with their own busy event seasons.