Richmond’s mayoral hopefuls fielded questions at a forum Tuesday about the role of local government in improving the city’s arts and cultural offerings. Six candidates participated in the event, hosted by CultureWorks at the Virginia Repertory Theatre on Broad Street. City Council President Michelle Mosby did not attend.
Below are our five takeaways.
1. Time to rebuild the Coliseum? — This has been the anti-big-shiny-projects election cycle, but Tuesday night, Joe Morrissey, Levar Stoney and Lawrence Williams all voiced support for building a new Coliseum downtown as their “game-changer” idea to improve the city’s arts and cultural offerings. The Coliseum, which opened in 1971, is put to shame by other large venues across the state. The John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, for example, siphons big acts that could, in theory, stop in Richmond if the city had a comparable venue and more accommodating admissions tax (see below). Morrissey, whose aversion to the big and shiny is the foundation of his regular forum spiel, said overhauling the building would have to be a regional effort.
2. Top candidates agree: Roll back the admissions tax. — The top-tier candidates all said they supported rolling back or decreasing the city’s 7 percent admissions tax. The tax applies to any “place of amusement or entertainment” (think sporting events, theater or music performances, clubs with cover charges) where admission is more than 50 cents, according to the city website. Morrissey said he would eliminate the tax for nonprofits, then decrease it for all others over time, though he did not specify by how much or over what period of time. Jack Berry said he would do the same. Stoney said he would apply it only to for-profit events and create an exemption for nonprofits. Currently, museums, gardens and zoos are the only entities exempt from the tax. Jon Baliles said the city should dial it back “a penny or two over time” because it’s a deterrent for promoters.
3. Williams takes a definitive stance on city support of public art. – Williams was the only candidate who said he would double the allocation – from 1 percent to 2 percent – set aside from the city’s capital improvement projects with a budget of more than $250,000. “It’s not a huge amount, but it could make a big difference in defining and shaping space and character” of the city, he said. Morrissey proposed a dedicated stream of funding from the real estate tax of “one or two or three pennies” to be put toward public art projects. Berry, Baliles and Stoney said they would maintain the current rate of city support.
4. The arts as an equalizer — Berry and Stoney posed specific ideas that would expand access to the city’s arts and cultural offerings for people living in underserved communities. “When it comes to financing, I think there’s a role for city government to play in providing grants that help with cultural equity, helping to serve communities that aren’t participating or aren’t able to take advantage of the arts scene we have,” Berry said. If elected, Stoney said he would institute what he called an “RVA card,” which would allow “those who are underprivileged to have access to museums and galleries throughout the city, at no cost,” he said. Denver has a similar program for children enrolled in its public schools.
5. Baliles thinking on his feet – On Tuesday, the West End councilman was the candidate who took the least liberty in bending his answers to his typical talking points. He summoned an anecdote about his role in ensuring city officials honored their commitment to set aside 1 percent of the total cost of the Richmond Justice Center for public arts, money that has been put toward the construction of the Maggie Walker statue. Later, he said the city could facilitate more business development as seen in the arts district by taking cues from the community and reconfiguring permitting and zoning codes. “The reason this stretch of Broad Street has been recreated and is energetic is because of those artists, those restaurateurs and those entrepreneurs, and that is why the city needs to take lessons from them, not dictate to them,” he said. The answer drew applause from the audience.