Why You Should Vote Yes on 4B to Renew Denver's SCFD Arts and Culture Tax

In recent weeks, we've been filling our Election archive with stories about statewide ballot measures and races. But ballot issue 4B is specific to the communities in and around the Mile High City.

The measure seeks to reauthorize the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which funds organizations devoted to culture and the arts by way of a 0.1 percent sales tax that's been in place throughout the seven-county Denver metro area for 28 years. Without voters' approval, the tax will expire on June 30, 2018.

There is no organized campaign against 4B, but there is opposition; tomorrow, the Independence Institute's Jon Caldara will share his objections.

Today, however, Yes on 4B spokeswoman Michele Ames offers arguments for why voters should bless SCFD again in an interview illustrated with photos from the campaign's Facebook page and sporting links included for fact-checking purposes.

Westword: Why should people vote in favor of 4B?

Michele Ames: I think the simplest way to think about it is that the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which is represented by 4B, turns out to be the little tax that could. We're at almost thirty years, and with just one penny on every $10 of sales tax that folks pay here in the Denver metro area, we get an amazing array of cultural activities, arts activities, facilities that are world-class by anyone's measure, as well as small, intimate theaters and music settings all over the seven-county metro area. To me, this is exactly what we should be getting when we pay our taxes and do this kind of communal effort.

How do you feel the tax has succeeded over the thirty years it's been in place?

These aren't my measures; these are external measures. But the National Endowment for the Arts did a study that came out recently in which Denver did very well. And by any measure, we have a very robust cultural arts and scientific community here in the seven-county metro area. And while certainly the SCFD shouldn't claim credit for every single bit of it, I think having that base level of funding and that base level of support from the community for those fledgling cultural efforts, as well as more established regional efforts, speaks volumes about who we are and shows our commitment in a way that's tangible. And I think it encourages more involvement. We saw it in the NEA survey, which said that 64 percent of adults here participate in some sort of activity that they define as art or a creative activity.

Again, no one's trying to claim credit for the whole thing, but I do think that having this bedrock of financial support and this bedrock of obvious community support is important. Assuming the vote goes forward, this will be the third time that voters will have renewed the district and the fourth time overall they've voted in favor of it.

Could you lay out the different types of organizations that receive funding from this tax?

There are basically three types of organizations that receive funding from this tax, and they're divided into tiers; it really has to do with the size of the organization and the number of people they serve. You have the big cultural organizations that are in the first tier: the Denver Zoo, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Denver Art Museum — the large regional facilities that we have here in the metro area.

The second tier is spread out across the entire seven-county Denver metro area, and it includes organizations like the Arvada Center, Hudson Gardens. Those kinds of larger organizations, but not ones as large as the Denver Zoo.

And finally, and I think most important when I talk to people who were around at the inception of this, we have organizations that are smaller and more community-based. Those organizations are funded by their county cultural councils, which exist in all seven of the Denver metro-area counties. Those cultural councils are given money from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, and they decide where that goes for local culture, smaller-scale arts organizations and events. They can set their own vision. So to me, it's the perfect distribution of supporting our big regional institutions that we all love and all use, but also making sure that at the local levels, these communities can make sure their visions are expressed as well for how they want to grow their own arts and culture.

What's a good example, in your opinion, of a success story in the third tier? One that might not exist at all without SCFD, or might not be doing as well as it is without this kind of funding?

There are a lot of examples of that. I think Su Teatro is a great example of a beautiful theater that has grown over the years and has received support from SCFD and really become a powerhouse in its community. And Cleo Parker Robinson Dance is a good example. I wouldn't take anything away from the force of nature that is Cleo Parker Robinson. But I do think funding from the SCFD has provided a baseline of support for that organization, so that it can grow in a healthy way. Think 360 Arts is another great example. They work with kids, at-risk kids, and put them in arts experiences. It's something that's really exciting.

I wouldn't want to say these organizations wouldn't exist without SCFD, because no organization within the district gets all of its funding from SCFD. The counties can set up their own rules about how they fund the smaller organizations in their community. But no council gives 100 percent of the funding to any organization. The point of the SCFD is to supplement and support, not fund entirely.

How do free days for the public factor into why you would argue in favor of voting for 4B?

Everyone loves a free day. If you've ever gone to the zoo or the art museum — I was just talking with the folks at the art museum the other day, and on their free Saturdays, they'll see as many as 13,000 people come through the doors.

Again, the SCFD doesn't pay entirely for every free day. But it provides that baseline of funding to ensure access. And that's what the SCFD has always been about — ensuring access to everyone in the Denver metro area to the broadest range of artistic and cultural experiences that we can have. That's the important point here: It provides that bedrock that the organizations can then use to expand their program, expand the number of free days they're able to do.

And it's not just free days. We have organizations like the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the Denver Zoo, that do free-pass experiences at libraries. Families that qualify financially can go to their local library and check out a free pass for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for a week. And they can use it for when it works with their schedule outside of the regular free days that are done at the larger institutions. So it's really a host of ways beyond the free days that these organizations are honoring the intent of the SCFD, which is access, access, access.

There is, to my knowledge, no organized campaign against 4B, but Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute opposes it. He refers to the SCFD as a regressive tax that hits people of lesser means harder than those who are more affluent and more likely to take advantage of many cultural institutions. He also argues that creative works funded by the government will result in safer art and, in the long run, art that's less likely to challenge the government and the status quo. How would you respond to those arguments?

I've heard Mr. Caldara's arguments, and on the first one, I respect his view that he feels the tax is regressive — but it's really about providing access. Individuals that might not have the means that Mr. Caldara seems so deeply concerned about once in a blue moon are actually benefited by this tax because they get access to organizations, events and facilities that they might not have been able to afford. So I think he's a little confused about that one.

On his second point, I'll begin by saying that Mr. Caldara doesn't like anything that has to do with the government, ever — so there's that point. But beyond that, he needs to look a little more closely at the way the SCFD is actually structured. The SCFD is structured in a way where the government has no say in any art that is created or exhibited. The closest that any government body gets to the art is at the county level — and those are county councils that have a set, clear criteria for how they distribute the money. And it has nothing necessarily to do with the art that's created, but about the ability of the organizations and the approach to serving the community. So I'm a little confused about his feeling that there's some Big Brother out there managing the art. Obviously, in a place like Colorado, where people have a pretty strong libertarian streak, if there was really an art-funding opportunity that people thought was Big Brother, I don't think it would have gone on for nearly thirty years. That just doesn't make any sense in Colorado.

He also argues that the arts in the area would continue to thrive even without this tax. Do you think that's true? And if so, would it thrive at the level it's at now?

Of course the arts would continue to thrive, because we're a creative community, and no one's going to take that away from us. However, I go back to the point of the SCFD, which is to set that baseline financial support and that base level of community support that calls out for access. I think that while the arts would continue to thrive, maybe they wouldn't be as affordable or as reasonable for folks who don't have as much money to be able to go and enjoy them. Or maybe they wouldn't have as large an array of offerings. We don't know what kinds of decisions the individual organizations would make if this funding was to go away. But actually on this question, I'm in violent agreement with Mr. Caldara. I do believe the arts would continue to thrive — but possibly not in the same way, not at the same level, and maybe not with as large of an access as we enjoy here.

How would you summarize the argument in favor of voting for 4B?

The argument in favor of voting for 4B is threefold. It provides all of us in the Denver metro area with an amazing array of cultural and artistic opportunities and facilities and events that we all love. Second of all, the SCFD provides an amazing amount of opportunities for education outreach into our schools. Every single school district in the Denver metro area is served by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. In fact, a recent study showed that on average, each kid gets about seven opportunities to experience artistic and cultural events and opportunities during their school year. And third, it is a huge economic driver here in the Denver metropolitan area; we get $1.8 billion of economic impact from our arts and cultural organization. That includes creating jobs and filling up our hotels and all of the great things that arts and culture bring to a community — all of the tourism they bring to a community.

For these three reasons — the access we all enjoy, the education our children receive and the economic boost our community gets — those are the reasons to vote yes on 4B.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts