City considers shifting funds to help needy

By Myles Murphy – Ashland Daily Tidings

Heading into this year’s budget process, city leaders prepare to discuss the amount of money traditionally given to the Ashland Chamber of Commerce and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through Economic and Cultural Development Grants.

“It may be more appropriate to use some of this money to help some of the social services agencies,” Ashland City Councilor Don Laws said. “Not that I’m opposed to the chamber or Shakespeare at all, but there’s a crisis (in Ashland’s social services community) and that’s a concern.”
A woman buys tickets Monday for the upcoming 2003 performance season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which receives annual city support. Ashland Daily Tidings/DENISE BARATTA

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Economic and Cultural Development Grants are generated by Ashland’s hotel and motel tax. In 1997, the city developed a formula for dispersing grant money generated by the tax. About 33.3 percent of the tax is given to the city’s grant program. Of that amount, 28 percent is allocated to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 60 percent to the Ashland Chamber of Commerce and the remaining 12 percent to other agencies.

In a typical year, around $45,000 is left over after OSF and the chamber receive the lion’s share of the funding. In 2002, 21 groups requested a total of $148,695. Only $46,560 were allocated for the grants that year, forcing hard choices on the part of the Ashland Budget Committee and the City Council. In 2001, 13 groups split about $46,000.

“We are in a situation where there are always more requests for money than we have,” Councilor John Morrison said. “It’s something we need to take a look at. There are no sacred cows.”

In 2002, Budget Committee member Russ Silbiger questioned the hierarchy of fund dispersal, proposing another $30,000 be taken from the OSF and chamber share to help some of the more needy groups.

“There’s a huge inequity,” Silbiger said. “The chamber and festival get money automatically, while the poor struggling arts groups …”

Silbiger’s proposal is developing into a larger discussion on the purpose of the ECD grants and whether the chamber and OSF should get smaller pieces of the pie.

This discussion is partly what triggered the festival and the chamber to request a study session with the council to present their annual reports on how the money was spent, according to OSF Executive Director Paul Nicholson.

“It made us realize we hadn’t had these conversations with the council in a long time,” Nicholson said. “And budget time is coming up.”

For the past few years, the two groups have submitted their reports to the city without discussion. Before that, they met regularly with the economic grants subcommittee.

“What we realized is we never get to sit down with the council and talk about our hopes, our aspirations, our challenges,” Nicholson said.

Chamber Executive Director Sandra Slattery agreed.

“We thought it had been a long time,” Slattery said. “It’s always important to let people know what we’re doing.”

The money for the festival and the chamber is intended for promoting the city, and both groups have done just that, according to their annual reports.

The festival estimates it had a positive economic impact on the city of about $129 million this year, while the chamber cites its sponsorship of community events – such as the July 4 celebration – aid to small businesses, and tourism promotion.

But some question the need – or value – of promoting the city further.

“Do we want to spend city money on activities that help our city grow?” Laws said. “Promoting tourism promotes growth. I suspect most of the people in this city are opposed to growth, so why should we be spending money to stimulate growth?”

While city businesses rely on tourism dollars brought in by the festival, the chamber and other Ashland attractions, the same forces are contributing to increased traffic, a lack of affordable housing, and skyrocketing property costs, according to Laws.

“Do we have enough visitors?” he asked. “I would guess most people say we have enough visitors now.”

Both organizations will discuss their activities with the council in a special study session at noon Wednesday at the Ashland Civic Center Council Chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

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