Candidates for Asheville City Council and the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners support an increase in funding for local arts projects, arts education and arts businesses struggling to stay afloat in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — and aren’t as sold on a pricey renovation as they were earlier in 2020, according to a recent survey conducted by the Asheville Area Arts Council.
Eleven of the 13 local candidates on the Nov. 3 general election ballot completed the arts questionnaire — a follow-up to the candidate survey that the AAAC published at the start of February to coincide with the primary election. According to AAAC Executive Director Katie Cornell, the goal of the questionnaire is “so that local residents can better understand each of [the candidates’] stances on these important policy topics impacting the arts.” The AAAC did not receive a response from District 1 candidate Glenda Weinert or District 2’s Jasmine Beach-Ferrara.
The best policy
Cornell developed the seven questions with the AAAC’s arts leadership council, which she describes as composed of “arts leaders who have really done something to enhance and fight for the sector.” Despite the concerning revelation that “some of the candidates didn’t understand the role of the arts council or why we would be the ones to receive arts funding when one of our major roles is to regrant that funding out to other arts organizations,” she’s encouraged overall by the results.
“It feels like they were more honest. There’s a few of them that I can tell are saying what they thought I wanted to hear, but for the most part, I felt like we got really genuine, honest answers,” Cornell says. “I think we’re at a point where people are really frustrated, and our candidates understand that [voters] don’t want b.s. They want real answers. They’re fed up … and they want to see real results.”
Cornell notes she was especially interested in responses concerning the Asheville Buncombe Hotel Association’s proposed changes earlier this year to the county’s occupancy tax, which would reduce the funding dedicated to marketing Buncombe County to tourists from 75% to 67% and increase funding available for community projects to 33%. Asked if they support the occupancy tax changes as presented, including funding for local arts projects, 18.2% strongly agree, 54.5% agree, 9.1% disagree and 18.2% are undecided. Many candidates express a desire for a more equitable split, with City Council candidate Kim Roney (the lone “disagree”) calling for representatives to “leverage this change for a lot more.”
“The [Tourism Development Authority] split, that could be wonderful for the arts,” Cornell says, referring to the proposed occupancy tax redistribution. “I think additional funding would be fantastic, but what’s being offered is not that bad for the arts, either. So, some insight there is helpful.”
The COVID-19 factor
Though only explicitly mentioned in one question, the pandemic proved a major factor in numerous responses. Presented with data from the recent Buncombe County Arts Business Impact Survey — in which local arts organizations reported $18.7 million in losses and 70% job losses, with 40% of the 100-plus responding organizations facing closure within six months or less without aid — candidates were asked if they’d support business interruption grants for these organizations through local CARES Act funding and/or additional recovery funding sources. Among respondents, 54.5% strongly agree, 36.4% agree and 9.1% are undecided. Incumbent Brownie Newman, running to retain his seat as commission chair, is the sole “undecided,” citing hope for “a safe and effective vaccine in the coming months that will help end the pandemic” and prioritizing assisting at-risk residents “meet their most basic life necessities” in the wake of federal relief funding being discontinued.
The pandemic has also shifted perspectives on the proposed $100 million renovation of Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville, a plan that would significantly overhaul Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. In the February survey, Anthony Penland (District 2) and Roney were among the few respondents who opposed or strongly questioned the renovation, with Parker Sloan (District 3) expressing a need for more information before weighing in on the matter.
Seven months later, when asked if they would support changes to the proposal to directly support local artists and arts organizations, Sloan and Terri Wells (District 1) are the lone undecideds — again citing a desire for greater details on the plan and its goals — while the rest agree (45.5%) or strongly agree (36.4%) with rerouting the funds. City Council candidate Rich Lee and Council member Keith Young, both of whom previously supported the renovation, now favor the redistribution of those funds, with Lee wanting to see them used for “permanently affordable housing and workspace for Asheville artists in the [River Arts District],” plus “a downtown-RAD circulator shuttle, funding for public art by local artists and funding art-educational programs like LEAF in Schools and Streets.”
“I actually felt better seeing their responses,” Cornell says. “[The $100 million proposal is] a huge investment in arts and entertainment that does not benefit artists or arts organizations in Buncombe County at all. What I was afraid was going to happen is there was going to be this large investment made, and the city and county would be able to say they invested in the arts without helping the arts at all.”
Cornell is also thrilled to see the widespread support for arts education in a year when she says budgets have been “slashed significantly.” The survey shows 72.7% of candidates strongly agree with providing additional funding for the enhancement of middle and high school arts programs in order to meet a new state law requiring students to have one arts credit between grades 6-12 in order to graduate from high school, beginning with those entering sixth grade in 2022. The other 27.3% agree with the proposal.
As for whether the candidates who are elected will follow through on these responses, Cornell is adopting a “wait-and-see” mindset but is encouraged by responses to introductory questions about their arts backgrounds and general experience with the arts, which show a strong connection to the sector. From active musicians and visual artists to frequent patronage of venues across the area, Cornell believes that these deep ties to the arts suggest that the candidates can better “understand and appreciate” their importance to the community and therefore hold true to their word.
Read the full survey results at ashevillearts.com