By Jan Worth-Nelson
A full complement of Flint Cultural Center directors and other arts CEOs appeared Thursday night to make their case and answer questions at the New McCree Theater at the first of two town halls on the Arts Education and Cultural Enrichment millage up for a county-wide vote Aug. 7.
Most of the 50 residents present, several of them artists, teachers, or performers themselves and passionately describing the positive effects of the arts on their lives, said they strongly support the millage, which would pour $8.7 million a year for ten years into a dozen cultural institutions in Genesee County.
But another group of speakers objected to what they see as a reluctance by Cultural Center leadership to be transparent and voiced concerns about whether the institutions could be trusted to be accountable for how they would use public funds.
A second town hall on the millage will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Whiting Auditorium.
The .96 millage proposal would cost the average homeowner about $48/year, based on an assessed valuation of about $50,000. The arts execs emphasized that one family visit to the Cultural Center, which if the millage passes would be free or discounted, would get back that tax investment.
The panel included Bryant Nolden, executive director of Berston Fieldhouse; Charles Winfrey, founder and executive director of the New McCree Theater; Rodney Lontine, president and CEO of the Flint Institute of Music which incorporates the Flint Symphony Orchestra, the Flint School of Performing Arts, and the Flint Youth Theater; Todd Slisher, executive director of the Sloan Museum/Longway Planetarium; John Henry, executive director of the Flint Institute of Arts; Jarret Haynes executive director of the Whiting Auditorium and Capitol Theater; Mark Sinila, CEO of the Flint Cultural Center Foundation; Tom Webber, president of the board of the Greater Flint Arts Council; and Randall Thompson, president of Citizens for a Better Genesee County, the volunteer group which originally proposed and has promoted the millage.
Nina Jones Lewis was the moderator.
Winfrey, host of the town hall, said revenue generated from the millage would be “a game changer” for the McCree. “Look around,” he said, “we could stand a lot of upgrades. Up to this point, we’ve had a bare bones type of existence, just enough to get by.” Originally founded in 1970, the McCree had been in hiatus between 1989 and 2004, and now occupies the former Powers High School campus.
The McCree, along with Berston Fieldhouse, would receive about $400,000 a year from the millage–close to doubling their annual budgets.
The Greater Flint Arts Council would receive $500,000 per year to be distributed in grants around the county to arts and cultural institutions.
The Flint Cultural Center institutions would receive about $1.8 million each per year–amounting to about 25 to 30 percent of their annual budgets. Those numbers are available here or on the Cultural Center website.
Benefits from the millage would include free general admission to the FIA and Sloan, 50 percent off Longway Planetarium, 30-50 percent off Whiting and Capitol Theater shows, 30 percent off FYT, 30 percent classical concert series; 75 percent off McCree, free workshops and art camps at Berston and other county arts programs. The whole list is available on the Cultural Center website.
“When I heard about this, I was elated,” said Bruce Bradley, director of the dance program Tapology. “This is a historic event, an opportunity for the black community at a historic time. We have a great capacity and great potential. I would love to see this directed toward youth–we should be producing Broadway plays, making films, making instruments, making tap shoes — we could put people to work.”
Sheila Miller-Graham from Creative Expressions dance studio echoed Bradley’s sentiments.
Noting that she had had an impact on at least 7,000 youth, Miller-Graham asserted, “I’d much rather put my dollars on the youth than put my dollars in a jail cell. Our kids are employable.
“Flint is a solid rock,” she said, “That rock that makes fire–and it only takes a spark to get that fire going. This millage will do that. Shame on us if we pass this by.”
Jarret Haynes from the Whiting and Capitol Theater agreed. He said access to the arts has a proven record of breaking the cycle of poverty with a direct correlation to improved math and reading scores and enhancing families. He said he hoped Aug. 7 would be “the day we substantively decided to break that cycle of poverty that is holding us back.”
“We are not a reclamation project — we have a good core, solid institutions, and a good citizenry that we can build on,” Haynes said.
“This entire initiative would be transformative for Genesee County,” Haynes continued. “The fact that individual residents of Genesee County will have free or low-cost access to all these programs, dozens if not hundreds of other arts organizations would have access to additional funding, a growing audience base, makes this transformative.
“We’re ALL citizens for a better Genesee County. We all have a vested interest in the vibrancy and the health and welfare and the success of this community,” Haynes said.
Look at any community which has succeeded in revitalizing itself, he said, adding, “The arts are often at the vanguard of that expansion. We take that mission seriously.”
One young citizen, Edith Pendell, 12, asked for clarification about the future of the Flint Youth Theater, which is rumored to be changing its name and performance structure as of a planned August 22 announcement. Pendell, who said she has been “especially involved” in Cultural Center programs since she was a toddler, most recently in the FYT production of “Geranium,” said “I feel that the community should understand the future of the FYT before the millage vote.”
The response of Rodney Lontine, FIM executive director, who has declined several requests to go on the record with East Village Magazine before the scheduled formal announcement, seemed to confirm what Pendell and others had heard. He said the FYT was looking at a “rebranding opportunity” for the Flint Youth Theater, making it part of a “repertoire of other offerings,” expanding, not reducing the theater opportunities.
When Pendell pressed Lontine about what changes would be expected with youth programming specifically, he said “With FYT and its programming, nothing would be any different. We are exploring how we could reach more of an audience–we can add value. Everything you love would still be there…All rebranding does is make those programs part of a bigger offering — not changing anything, looking for more customers and serving the community better.”
Flint attorney Terry Bankert spoke for several in the audience who have been pressing for more information about how the money would be used, and how the recipient institutions would be accountable to the public. In particular, he expressed disbelief that a “memo of understanding” about how the money would be distributed had been publicly released just two hours before the town hall.
“I started at ‘yes,’ on this,” said Bankert, who lives within walking distance of the Cultural Center and said he still wants to support the millage. But he said “I don’t trust you’re going to do this right with public money. I don’t see the level of accountability — it’s ludicrous that your MOU just came out.”
He expressed doubt that the institutions would follow the Open Meetings Act, and said he was made skeptical by the lack of specifics about accountability.
Ron Hudson, a former school teacher and community school director and a current board member of the Berston Fieldhouse, directly addressed Bankert in reply.
“We need your vote. My point is, we have all these cultural centers and people providing enrichment activities affecting thousands and thousands of lives — think of it from that perspective. We have people that are very responsible and we’ve never had a problem. If we can get you to understand how much this would affect other people’s lives, your vote would be beneficial to the whole community.”
Randall Thompson, president of Citizens for a Better Genesee County, selected that moment to weigh in.
“I’ve been an anti-tax guy but this is the one that changed my mind,” Thompson said, adding that Citizens for a Better Genesee County have been working on oversight guarantees, too.
Noting that legally the Genesee County Board of Commissioners would have oversight, Thompson said that as the levying body, the board could decline to levy the tax if the recipient institutions step out of line. He also said the county board could appoint an arts ombudsman or consider adding additional citizen representatives to the cultural center boards.
Several of the arts execs pointed out that as nonprofit organizations they are required to report yearly via a federal form called a “990” and that their boards already are made up of many community representatives.
“Our funding traffics in the public trust to begin with,” Haynes said. “If any of us wasn’t trustworthy, our donor base would be nonexistent. We embrace the social compact. It’s worth exploring ways to continue to prove that, but as you’re considering ways to put your trust in us, we have that track record and we hope and expect we can give you the confidence in our ability to deliver.”
Moderator Nina Lewis wrapped things up, saying, “The arts make a difference in the lives of people and I want to urge you to support it fully and to talk about how this will benefit the residents of Genesee County.”
In an email after the town hall, one of the millage critics, Linda Pohly, who had been there, wrote “They finally made a case that I can understand. Their sales pitch has been ‘we will give you free for cheap.’ Last night they focused on what they could do for the community, instead of what the community ought to be doing for them.”
Despite what she described as “a few missteps,” from Thursday night, in particular what she said is an ongoing lack of clarity about why the money is needed now, she said, “I was encouraged that they expressed a willingness to work with the commissioners. If the millage passes, the public needs not only good oversight but consistent public involvement.” Still, she said, she intends to vote “no.”
Two Cultural Center executives, Mark Sinila and Todd Slisher, explained their “why” here, in a recent EVM interview.
Banner photo: Panel at the New McCree Theater for the first arts millage Town Hall (from left): Bryant Nolden, Charles Winfrey, Rodney Lontine, Moderator Nina Lewis, Todd Slisher, John Henry, Jarret Haynes, Mark Sinila, Tom Webber, Randall Thompson (Photo by Patsy Isenberg)
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.