published Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

When public support is vital

When city and county business recruiters craft their economic development plans or pitch the city as a welcoming home for new businesses and jobs, they always showcase the city's quality of life and public amenities: the Riverwalk and other greenways, our increasing body of public art and cultural resources, and the downtown Riverfront, which features inviting parks, public art and convenient, enjoyable recreation on both sides of the Tennessee River. All of these amenities serve to draw residents and visitors downtown, nourishing the restaurants, nightlife, cultural offerings and festivals that energize and animate the city and boost the local economy.

Officials tout the intangible essence of these cultural amenities for good reason. The competition for economic development is brutal. Leaders of successful, progressive companies can find the land, employees and infrastructure they need most anyplace, but the good companies want more. Specifically, they want the amenities and quality of life that will benefit not only their own lives, but that will also help them lure the talented and educated employees they seek to make their companies thrive.

Indeed, it was the city's downtown renaissance and related amenities, for example, that tipped Volkswagen to choose Chattanooga for its new home over Huntsville, Ala.—and over the dozens of sites offered to the company by most every other state in the union. Volkswagen officials themselves said so. And to punctuate that point, they chose to announce their decision in the soaring glass atrium of the beautiful addition to the Hunter Museum, which frames a spectacular view of the new downtown parks and is graced by public art in its plaza.

We point this out to ask why city and county officials are so reluctant to help fund these amenities, which enrich our lives and our economy.

The city and county mayors and City Council and County Commission members all say they appreciate the greenways, the parks and the public art which embellishes our outdoor spaces. But when it comes to actually paying for new greenway additions, parks and public art, they balk. They usually want someone else or some other entity to pay, and they virtually refuse to consider establishing a meaningful designated portion of their budgets for such amenities.

Since 2007, for example, the city has been the beneficiary of over $3 million in permanent public art, and has further enjoyed, without charge to the city, a year-long exhibit along the Riverwalk of 20 pieces of public art valued at $1.2 million. The city's funding contribution for $4.2 million value has been just $100,000 a year toward purchases of public art, and $20,000 a year for a one-third share of the $60,000 annual administrative cost.

This year, the city eliminated its $100,000 capital fund altogether. And Councilman Jack Benson now wants to revoke the $20,000 that the council agreed last week, by a 7-2 vote, to contribute for administrative expenses for the public art program.

All of the balance of the money has come from private donors—from foundations and individuals. The city's decision to cut the $100,000 capital fund, which has leveraged over $3 million in gifts, risks souring donors, however. It could, indeed, prompt them to curtail, or end, their donations. Without city or county funding—county officials refuse to put a single penny toward the purchase of public art—there is little prospect of developing a more vibrant public arts program.

City and county governments have also refused, for years, to contribute any meaningful amount of the budget for the Trust for Public Land's greenway work, the linchpin of scores of miles of trails that now beckon citizens on both sides of the river.

City and county officials should follow the path of more successful cities in financial support of both the economic and aesthetic value of public art and public spaces. These amenities beautify and animate our public spaces, enhance our recreation, lift our spirits, and expand our awareness, imagination and sense of wonder about our world. All of us are enriched by civic participation and financial support of public art and public spaces, but it takes meaningful public support to make a public-private partnership work.

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