Northern Colorado arts backers push for cultural tax on 2016 ballot

Photo: Fort Collins Symphony
The Fort Collins Symphony performs.

A Fort Collins arts advocate is proposing a sales and use tax benefiting scientific and cultural organizations in the northern Colorado region.

Bruce Freestone, the co-founder of OpenStage Theatre company in Fort Collins, is spearheading an effort to get the initiative on the November 2016 ballot.

“Many I know in the non-profit arts are working with minimal staffs, struggling each and every year to get back to where they were the year before,” Freestone says. “If you have a dedicated fund like this, then you have the ability to stretch the organizational capacity. And that means the ability to impact larger numbers of people."

Freestone has turned to the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) for guidance as he develops his plans. SCFD helps fund organizations across seven metro Denver counties.

Since 1989, SCFD has distributed revenue funds from .1 percent of sales and use tax -- totaling more than $800 million -- to hundreds of the metro area’s cultural organizations.

In 2016, metro area voters will decide whether or not to approve another extension of the tax after voting “yes” in 1994 and 2004.

Freestone hopes to bring northern Colorado’s own version of a cultural tax district before voters next year, after similar efforts in 2008 and 2009 did not result in ballot measures.

“We were really naive, and we did not have the sophisticated leadership to make informed decisions,” Freestone says. “We need to plan it out methodically and deliberately. Really our best shot would be with the presidential election cycle, when you tend to get more voters and a little more progressive mind set to the electorate.”

Freestone is just at the start of a long journey to get his measure on the ballot.

First, he plans to reach out to community members to organize a leadership team and determine the needs of area cultural organizations. Then Freestone plans to organize a public forum.

From there, Freestone says the greatest challenge will be shaping a vision and a strategy for the initiative. The process includes enlisting volunteers to help procure petition signatures as well as discussing eligibility requirements, a distribution model and administrative needs.

Symphony backs effort

Fort Collins Symphony executive director Mary Kopco says her organization plans to work closely to support the initiative.

"It's time for this to happen," Kopco says. "Having a varied funding structure leads to very healthy, accountable and vibrant non-profit cultural organizations."

Fort Collins already offers cultural grants through the city's Cultural Development & Programming and Tourism Accounts -- or "Fort Fund" -- which draws from allocated lodging tax revenues.

In 2014, Fort Fund distributed nearly $298,950 to 50 organizations. And while the symphony has received support from the grant program, Kopco says it's not enough.

The symphony has an annual budget of about $500,000. Kopco says the organization has operated with a bare bones budget since the 2008 recession and that additional public funding would go toward expanding programming, outreach and educational opportunities.

"It’s important to stress the fact that when we invest in the arts and humanities, we create jobs and we add to quality of life," Kopco says.

Uphill battle

With the 2008 recession still fresh in taxpayers' minds, Larimer County Commissioner Steve Johnson says that any new tax will have a tough time passing in the county.

"Most voters that I run into in Larimer County are very skeptical of tax increases," Johnson says. "The group will need to convince them that the money will be used wisely, it will stay in the community and be used only for those activities. I think it will be an uphill battle."

SCFD executive director Peg Long says the support must go beyond the arts community in order to realize -- and maintain -- a tax district.

"It takes strong leadership and commitment from the government sector and the business community," Long says. "Those two are absolutely key."

SCFD is now considered a national model because of its longevity and growth, Long says. Counties like Eagle in Colorado and Cuyahoga in Ohio as well as cities like Seattle and Miami have turned to SCFD for insight and guidance on their similar initiatives.

But even SCFD took years to materialize. The campaign to the ballot box started in 1982, at a time when public funding for Denver's four major cultural institutions -- the Denver Art Museum, the Denver Zoo, the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Museum of Natural History (now the Museum of Nature and Science) -- took a big hit as a result of an economic downturn.

The first bill died in 1986 due to overwhelming dissension among committee members before another bill successfully entered and passed through the Legislature a year later.

And while there are statutes to follow for any regions in Colorado looking to create a cultural tax district like SCFD, Long says each would-be tax district must consider the SCFD's story more as a guide and less as a recipe.

"You can’t just take Denver’s experience and try to replicate it exactly," Long says. "Times are different, demographics have changed and the cultures in each area are different."