Phoenix seeks community input as the city considers bond funding for a new Latino Cultural Center and other creative projects, all while art spaces rebound from COVID-19 impacts.
PHOENIX—Latino culture. Holocaust education. Youth theater. They’re all topics of conversation in Phoenix, where the city is considering projects to prioritize for its next round of bond funding.
For those who think bonds aren’t a big deal, consider that bond funding was instrumental in creating the Phoenix Children’s Museum and new homes for both Arizona Opera and Ballet Arizona. In Las Vegas, bonds helped build the reported $470 million Smith Center for the Performing Arts, while the funding mechanism assisted in renovations for the Dallas Museum of Art and Dallas Black Dance Theatre.
Whatever your favorite art form, there’s a good chance municipal bonds have helped it along.
“Regular bond programs are essential to keep up with all the city’s needs,” says Mark Mettes, president and CEO of Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix.
The City of Phoenix plans to place a bond initiative on the 2023 ballot, giving voters a chance to approve funding for a set of specific projects in eight sectors, including arts and culture. Currently, the city is gathering community input, in part through a series of public sessions happening in September 2022. The next Phoenix general obligation bond executive committee meeting is scheduled for 6 pm local time, Wednesday, September 14.
Bonds are debt securities issued by governmental entities. When people buy bonds, they’re helping pay for capital projects such as new roads, parks, or creative spaces. The City of Phoenix is capping its bond proposal at $500 million to avoid raising property taxes; however, according to the city’s online information guide, the impact on the average homeowner will be between $17 to $30 per year for the life of the bond.
For artists, arts organizations, and arts supporters, the bond process is an opportunity to weigh in on city priorities and plans, and perhaps help shape city decisions about which projects to fund.
The City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture identified five priorities for this bond cycle, including expanding the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, building a new venue for Valley Youth Theatre, creating a new Latino Cultural Center, making improvements to Symphony Hall, and replacing critical equipment at city-owned cultural facilities. Residents can push back on those priorities, suggest specific changes, or recommend that the bond provide full or partial funding for other capital projects.
Some organizations, including Phoenix Theatre Company and Phoenix Center for the Arts, have added their own proposals to the mix. Others have significantly increased the ideal scope and budget for their shortlisted projects.
Ultimately, some items won’t get funded because of the bond cap, and proposed projects already far exceed the $500 million figure. Phoenix City Council will vote in the coming months on a funding plan to include on the 2023 ballot. (In some states, including New Mexico, those decisions instead happen at the state legislature.)
This is Phoenix’s first general operating bond proposal in the age of COVID-19, a fact that could influence which projects make the cut.
In recent years, public health concerns led a number of nationwide museums, performing arts centers, and other cultural venues to shutter temporarily—which suggests the need to assess if building new large-scale centers should still be a priority, and whether lessons learned during the pandemic could influence their designs.
“People are consuming the arts differently now,” says Mitch Menchaca, executive director for the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture. “Potentially, theaters with 2,000 seats might be a thing of the past, and flex spaces will be more needed.”
The Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix is requesting bond funding to build a permanent outdoor stage. During the pandemic, the Herberger installed a temporary open-air performance area, which led to a demand in live outdoor presentations.
“That stage allowed us to connect with, promote, and pay artists from across the Valley, and to focus on being there for the community with free performances,” explains Mettes of the Herberger. “Things have definitely changed since the days of building large monolithic arts centers.”
In some cases, equity-based concerns are driving funding discussions.
Michael Barnard, producing artistic director for Phoenix Theatre Company, says the group wants to improve Americans with Disabilities Act compliance by building an additional space at its existing campus.
When the Phoenix City Council voted on nearly $1.3 million in arts and culture grants this summer, council member Betty Guardado opposed the funding because the money was concentrated in downtown rather than a broader swath of the city.
Similar concerns inform bond-related decisions throughout the Southwest.
“Today there’s more of a recognition that there should be multiple centers,” says David Holland, deputy director for the Denver-based Western States Arts Federation, which represents several Southwestern states including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. “There’s an ecosystem so there needs to be different offerings at different scales for different communities.”
Denver voters have approved three bond initiatives during Ginger White’s time as executive director for Denver Arts and Venues. Funded projects have included an expansion to the Denver Art Museum, improvements to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, and a restoration of the Buell Theatre, according to Ginger White, executive director for Denver Arts and Venues.
“We tend to focus on renovating and restoring existing venues rather than building new art spaces,” White says of her city’s bond priorities. “Oftentimes there is a public-private partnership, so the bond funding doesn’t need to cover the whole project.”
Occasionally, bond funding doesn’t work out as planned. That’s another reason to keep tabs on developments as they occur, according to arts supporter Bob Diehl of Phoenix.
In 2001, the city approved close to $1.4 million in bond funding to renovate and expand the Museo Chicano downtown, but the museum shuttered in 2008 before improvements were completed. Today, just over $900,000 remains, and that money has been earmarked for a new Latino Cultural Center. Some community members have decried the way these funds have been handled.
Just a few years ago, the city estimated it would take about $12 million to renovate an existing building next to Phoenix Center for the Arts and transform it into the Latino Cultural Center. Today, the estimate is just over $21 million, a change the city attributes in part to rising costs for development. Other involved parties have floated an idea to create a brand-new center in South Phoenix on a grander scale similar to the Latino Cultural Center in Dallas or Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center.
Diehl encourages organizations to think about associated costs for items, such as building new parking spaces, because bonds may not be enough to address every need.
There’s still time for interested residents to learn more and share their feedback, as various subcommittees meet this month to consider new, revised, or existing proposals. Eventually, the subcommittees will decide which projects and dollar amounts they want to recommend to the executive committee before a final recommendation goes to Phoenix City Council. For residents, there’s a website where people can learn more about the projects under consideration and other ways to share their ideas and opinions.
“The bond process isn’t sexy,” says White of Denver Arts and Venues, “but I think bonds and other public funding mechanisms are some of the best ways for communities to see improvements in their cities.”