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Orange County mayoral candidates grilled by local arts leaders

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Considering the current state of our union, it's tempting to tune out political talk altogether. But just because the national discourse has gone off the deep end, that's no reason for civilized citizens to ignore local elections. In Orange County, three leading candidates are vying to replace term-limited Mayor Teresa Jacobs in November. While most of the media's focus during the campaign will naturally fall on bread-and-butter issues, members of the arts community recently filled the Dr. Phillips Center's Pugh Theater for a Q&A that placed cultural concerns front and center.

Last Wednesday's mayoral candidate forum, titled "The Future of Arts and Culture in Orange County," was organized by the Citizens for Cultural Vitality, an informal organization of cultural leaders spearheaded by Cole NeSmith of the Creative City Project and Orlando Repertory Theatre development director Vicki Landon.

Together with United Arts president Flora Maria Garcia and Orange County director of Arts & Cultural Affairs Terry Olson (among others), the Citizens crafted five pointed questions about arts funding and recruited a who's-who of our area's arts administrators – including Barbara Hartley (Downtown Arts District), Christopher Barton (Orlando Philharmonic) and Mitzi Maxwell (Mad Cow) – to pose the following queries:

1: Will you support the creation of a public-sector, ongoing dedicated funding stream for the arts that generates, at minimum, an additional $5 million per year in funding for arts and culture beyond existing sources?

2: In past years, the county dedicated $1 per capita from the general fund for arts and culture in Orange County. That has dwindled to nearly 50 cents per capita in the past decade. Would you support the reinstatement of the $1 per capita in 2019 from the general fund for arts support?

3: Orange County has invested excess TDT funding to recruit and support sporting events. The fund was seeded with $5 million and will be funded annually with an additional $2 million. Would you support an equivalent fund for arts and culture events from excess TDT?

4: More than 500 cities and counties in the US (including the city of Orlando and state of Florida) have a public art ordinance that designates 1-2 percent of all capital construction costs – including repairs– to public art. Orange County has no such ordinance. Will you support an ordinance of up to 2 percent for public art in Orange County?

5: The cost of performance, work and exhibition spaces often becomes prohibitive for many arts organizations. Will you work to cultivate funding to offset operational costs associated with venue rentals to make usage more affordable for arts organizations and independent producers?

The three participating candidates – Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings, County Commissioner Pete Clarke and businessman Rob Panepinto – each introduced himself with a brief biographical statement, and then responded to the above questions. (Their full written replies will be available on orlandoweekly.com.) I'm no expert on all the issues that Orange County's mayor may face, but judging the event as theater, I found the trio's performances both enlightening and frustrating.

Sheriff Demings is a polished politician, and he sprinkled his presentation with heartwarming stories about his humble upbringing and dancing granddaughters, even dropping an Epcot reference. But he reeled off a long list of priorities (including affordable housing, traffic, homelessness and opioid abuse) ahead of the arts, which Demings largely lauded in terms of childhood education. And while he said he supports "the current dedicated funding amount that we have in place," he demurred from promising more than "dialogue" about increased investments.

Commissioner Clarke is also an experienced candidate, but he came across onstage as a bit more earnest and approachable, confessing his closet careers as a bad painter and a five-chord classic rocker. The Boone High alumnus sounded slightly more upbeat about funneling more money to the arts, but while he said the current $5 million funding level was "sacrosanct and should never be altered," he repeatedly deferred to the budgetary process for any increases. And, like Demings, Clarke declared the County Commission's current public art resolution "fairly binding," obviating the need for an enforceable ordinance.

Panepinto, a native New Yorker who's a political newcomer but has run numerous businesses and nonprofits in our region, was the wild-card factor for me going into the evening. As a first impression, I found him to be the most energized and engaged of the three, with well-articulated responses, although his intensity could be a bit unnerving. Like his rivals, Panepinto was reluctant to promise an increase in dedicated funding at taxpayers expense, but I liked that he encouraged voters to "hold the county commission's feet to the fire" for additional dollars, and he was the only one to unambiguously support restoring per-capita levels, spending TDT revenue, and crafting an art ordinance for "public-facing buildings."

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by everyone's stab at the final question, which I considered the most important. All three dodged the idea of subsidized rentals and instead suggested using public school auditoriums (impractical, considering Lake Howell's costume shop recently closed over security concerns) or renovating the Bob Carr, which has already raised its rental rates by tens of thousands of dollars. Next door to the Pugh, the new Steinmetz acoustic hall at the Dr. Phillips Center is under construction. Advertised as ideal for ballet and opera, it remains an open question whether any local company will be able to afford to set foot on its stage, and none of the mayoral candidates could offer a good solution if not.