By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken might not know a soprano from a saxophone, but he knows this: the Cincinnati Opera brings in more than 30,000 patrons a year.
That's 30,000 people who rent hotel rooms, shop downtown and eat dinner at some of Cincinnati's finest restaurants. And during festival weekends, in which the opera performs two separate works in the same weekend, opera lovers from 34 states converge on Cincinnati.
Contrast that with an increasingly bleak picture on other fronts: Retailers continue to leave downtown. The city's population decreases by an average of 1 percent a year. The Reds and Bengals aren't drawing what was hoped after building more than $700 million in new sports facilities. And boycotts force the cancellation of commercially popular African-American entertainers.
That explains why, even as budget cuts are forcing the elimination of entire city services, city leaders are doubling government support of the arts. City Council will vote today on a plan by Councilman Jim Tarbell to divvy up an unprecedented $2.2 million in grants to 17 organizations, including $350,000 to the opera to help fix up the north wing of Music Hall.
"I will admit that I don't know much about the opera, the symphony or the ballet - though I do enjoy going to them," Luken said. "It has just seemed to me that the city must recognize its growth potential, and the arts provides the biggest growth potential I can think of."
It's arts as economic development.
And it's no coincidence that 75 percent of the city spending on the arts this year will be in Over-the-Rhine, a neighborhood the city has targeted for development after riots there reverberated throughout the city in 2001.
"I know in some quarters there's a resentment about the amount of public support that ends up in Over-the-Rhine, Pendleton and the West End," Luken said. "What I try to explain to people is that the future of the entire city is at stake here. I don't make any apology for that."
Luken speaks often of the "creative class" - a generation of young, professional workers who are attracted to cities by their cultural amenities.
But Cincinnati Tomorrow, the group of 20-somethings that's become the leading advocate for the creative class, says the grants are funding too many stodgy "Big Eight" institutions like the opera and not enough "fringe art" and contemporary groups like the Know Theater Tribe.
"Our arts mentality is a lot like our development mentality, which is the bigger the better," said Nicholas Spencer of Cincinnati Tomorrow. "We focus on the next great building instead of doing place-making. The arts community is still focused on the things that were important 30 years ago.
"If you support more youth-centered art - fringe art, more entry-level art - if you do those things, that audience is going to grow up, and eventually they'll support the symphony and the opera."
Before Tarbell announced his spending plan, there was some behind-the-scenes wrestling between the arts committee chairman and the mayor over precisely that issue. Tarbell worked to broaden support for more and smaller groups; Luken tried to keep the money concentrated on established organizations with the largest dollar needs.
Tarbell's thinking: "If we're going to make a case for doing this on a regular basis - $2 million a year, every year - we need to have the broadest support possible."
In the end, Tarbell and Luken compromised with a plan that divided the fund about equally between the Big Eight and everyone else.
But no matter how you slaughter the hog, some taxpayer advocates say, it's all pork.
"It's particularly appalling that in light of the budget problems, they're pouring an unprecedented amount of money into these kinds of things," said Jim Urling, chairman of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes.
A $2.2 million city expenditure would pay for the recycling and yard waste collection program, scheduled to be cut in the 2004 budget.
It would pay for a long-awaited overhaul of the Vine Street business district in Carthage. Or it could pay for a property tax rollback that would save the owner of a $100,000 home about $18 a year.
"The ideologue in me says we could transfer all of this to the private sector," Urling said. "And I still believe the unfettered free market can make the best decisions about what art, or form of art, should survive and what should not. But very few people embrace that idea anymore, including financial conservatives. That debate does not even happen."
For the most part, City Council's Republicans both support the spending. Councilman Chris Monzel is a co-sponsor.
But some of council's budget hawks are upset at a $40,000 operating subsidy to the Greater Cincinnati Blues Society to support a three-day gospel music festival.
Monzel said he felt like Tarbell "pulled a fast one" on the committee; Councilman Pat DeWine said it was "typical Jim."
But Monzel defended the rest of the spending. He noted that about $1 million of the spending goes to fix up city-owned buildings such as Music Hall and the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.
But it's mostly about development, he said.
"A lot of cities that have prospered have transformed into a tourism-based, arts- and culture-oriented economy," he said. "The investment we're making right now is unprecedented."
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