Austin’s creative community needs voter-approved $12 million bond money released this year, but some council members are hesitant

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Several representatives from the city’s creative community addressed the Austin Music Commission on March 4 with a clear trend: Real estate costs are crushing art venues, and the $12 million earmarked for assistance in November’s voter-approved $925 million bond package needs to be released soon and all at once—or more spaces will close.

As is typical, the $925 million bond is scheduled to be appropriated in chunks over a six-year period. Austin City Council is set to vote on the initial $151 million appropriation March 7; advocates of the local art scene are concerned it only includes $500,000 and not the full $12 million for creative space assistance.

“If we wait too long, I really do think it’s going to be too late for a lot of spaces,” Crystal Kelly, a representative of the 31-year-old Vortex Theater, told music commissioners March 4. “A partial release or a delayed release might be a needless restriction on what we might be able to accomplish.”

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen, who has positioned herself as a vocal champion for artists on the dais, recognized the shortcomings of the $500,000 earmark and is pressing to change it to the full $12 million; however, the idea has chaffed against the priorities of other council members.

Austin’s arts and music commissions have been working with the city on creating a plan for how to spend the money; however, what exactly solutions to Austin’s creative space crunch look like remain unknown and heavily rely on the proposals the city receives from the community. Kitchen said if only $500,000 is appropriated, then the city can only solicit proposals within that budget, whereas appropriating the full $12 million all at once would allow the flexibility for proposals of all shapes and sizes to come in.

Although Kitchen’s argument attracted some agreement from colleagues, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said since the creative space funds would be the only part of the bond released in full, it would appear the city was prioritizing that issue over other bond issues, such as affordable housing, flood mitigation or the Dove Springs health center, the funds for which are being released in parts.

“I think every department would want the full amount [appropriated]as soon as possible,” Garza said. “I’m concerned about the optics. It feels like prioritization.”

Casar raised concerns that releasing the full $12 million ahead of schedule could push the appropriations for other projects back. Although city Chief Financial Officer Elaine Hart said appropriating all $925 million at once would negatively impact the tax schedule, she did not say there would be issue with appropriating the creative space $12 million in full.

Due to legal restrictions, City Council cannot amend a budget item on the day of their vote to increase the appropriation. Kitchen said for the March 7 meeting, City Council will separate the $500,000 appropriation from the rest of the $151 million and discuss it. If council agrees to appropriate the $12 million in full, it will need to wait to officially approve it at its March 28 meeting.

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Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following two years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and USA Today. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
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