A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the arts community being an engine for economic revitalization in downtown Hagerstown. Not only did the column identify the tremendous potential for the arts to create jobs, but it challenged the arts community to do a better job of coordinating its efforts, and to make creation of jobs at restaurants and stores a top priority. I received quite a bit of feedback from readers, mostly affirming my opinion.
The arts are struggling for survival. My previous column challenged the arts community to find creative ways to cut expenses to attain financial stability. The arts community is also aggressively seeking additional sources of revenue, such as greater philanthropic support. But philanthropy can't fund the entire shortfall that is foreseen for the next few years. Additional streams of revenue are needed to keep the arts alive and vital. After all, if local arts are going to deliver jobs in restaurants and stores in downtown Hagers-town, then their first priority must be to survive.
Unfortunately, state and federal funding is being slashed. Some readers will argue that government funding of the arts is a waste of money. Others will argue that financially supporting the arts should not be a role of government. To both arguments, it must be pointed out that governments have historically supported the arts. It seems that there might be some merit to those who argue against traditional public funding for the arts. However, from my point of view, it is the source of those tax dollars to which I object.
The arts are important. I support the arts. The arts help define our culture and who we are as a society. They stimulate thought and challenge perceptions. They tie our communities together. In some states and communities, public funding for the arts is viewed as a critical government function. For example, the state of Washington requires that 0.5 percent of the capital expenditure for publicly funded projects be reserved for the arts. I believe governments will continue to have a role in supporting the arts.
I would favor expanding public funding for the arts through a tool that does not raise your taxes or mine. The Hotel Rental Tax is not paid directly by taxpayers. The Hotel Rental Tax, also known as hotel-motel or lodging tax, is levied on room rates at hotels. The Hotel Rental Tax in Washington County is 6 percent. The revenue generated by this tax is split equally between the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and the Board of County Commissioners. CVB spends its share to promote tourism and convention activity. The County Commissioners use their half of the proceeds to enhance economic development and to support cultural and recreational projects.
Consider a 1 percent increase in the Hotel Rental Tax, with the added amount going to support the arts. Based on last year's figures, a 7 percent Hotel Rental Tax would generate approximately $259,000 in additional revenue. This might not seem like a lot of money to county government, but it could be to the arts community. This amount would service the debt on $4,750,000 at 3.5 percent for improvements to The Maryland Theatre. It could fix the roof at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. It could provide dozens of arts grants, and support such popular programs as Music by the Lake and Gospel in the Park concerts in City Park or Wind Down Fridays and Center City Jazz Nights in downtown Hagerstown.
A look at hotel rental taxes levied in nearby counties indicates that the amount of the tax ranges from 2 percent to 9 percent. To me, this suggests that a 7 percent Hotel Rental Tax is not unreasonable. Granted, the county delegation to the General Assembly would have to get legislation passed to increase the Hotel Rental Tax from 6 percent to 7 percent. But, with local government leadership, this might be possible.
Being consistent with my previous approach, I suggest a private-sector solution to distribute the funds. The existing system probably would not lend itself to ensuring the extra funds are distributed to arts projects that will provide the greatest economic return to the community. Therefore, a private-sector system should be considered to distribute funds to arts community recipients that commit to reduce cost, share services, deliver economic activity, and provide transparency and accountability to citizens.
David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail. His email address is email@example.com.