Denver cultural district: possible role model?

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has benefited from SCFD funding for 25 years.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has benefited from SCFD funding for 25 years.

In November 1988, voters in the six-county Denver Metro Area (Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Denver, Douglas and Jefferson) were asked to approve a 1/10 of a cent sales tax for something called the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

The district’s purpose: “to distribute funds for the support of cultural facilities whose primary purpose is to enlighten and entertain the public through the production, presentation, exhibition, advancement and preservation of art, music, theatre, dance, zoology, botany, natural history and cultural history.”

The measure passed overwhelmingly, with 75 percent of the vote. The district has been reauthorized twice, once in 1994 and again in 2004. It will be on the ballot again in 2016, and it seems highly unlikely that metro voters will refuse another extension. In the quarter-century since its creation, the SCFD has provided more than $750 million in grants to cultural organizations large and small.

In a forgivably smug note on its website, the SCFD explains its success.

“The distribution budget for scientific and cultural organizations in the seven-county area [now including Broomfield] is approximately $40 million annually. And we’ve discovered that funding on that scale, delivered to a local area, makes a profound impact. As a result, the Denver Metro area is now in the national spotlight and has been elevated in stature to a world-class cultural center.”

By statute, SCFD funding is distributed to three categories of recipients.

The five “Tier 1” institutions including the Denver Art Museum, Denver Zoo, Botanic Gardens, Denver Center for the Performing Arts and the Museum of Nature and Science receive 65.5 percent of the annual funds.

There are 21 “Tier II” institutions, which share 21 percent of the funds. Tier II eligibility is determined by annual income and paid attendance. For 2015, the income threshold is $1.5 million.

The remaining 13.5 percent is divided among Tier III recipients, “which include an astonishing array of small organizations with cultural and scientific missions. Tier III organizations benefit our neighborhoods and provide outlets for the most personal cultural interests. Many provide opportunities for members of the community to be involved as performers and educators.”

Such distributions may help cement continuing voter approval. Hundreds of small nonprofits receive or have received Tier III SCFD funding.

Could we in Colorado Springs create our own SCFD? Community leaders in the early 1990s twice succeeded in putting similar measures on the ballot, both of which failed.

Two decades later, should we try again? It’s interesting and illuminating to examine the history of the SCFD, and the unique circumstances that led to its creation.

Denver in a bind

In 1981, Denver’s four city-owned arts institutions got some bad news. The Denver Art Museum, Denver Museum of Natural History, Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Denver Zoo saw city and state funding reduced to almost zero.

The results were catastrophic. The zoo’s budget was slashed by 59 percent, the natural history museum’s by 45 percent, the DAM’s by 25 percent and the DCPA’s by 22 percent. Organizations cut staff, skimped on maintenance and upped ticket prices, but the decline continued. By the mid-1980s, it was clear that some sort of permanent fix was needed to create a dedicated revenue stream, a taxing district to support cultural nonprofits.

As originally conceived, the four major institutions would have received almost all of the funding, leaving smaller institutions to fight over the scraps. That didn’t fly when smaller institutions, calling themselves “the coalition of the excluded,” went public with concerns.

In previous years, the idea might have died then and there. Denver’s economy was still in the doldrums, but the city’s young mayor had a solution. When running for office in 1983, Federico Peña had urged Denver voters to “imagine a great city.” Newspaper columnists derisively referred to the Peña administration as “Feddy and the Dreamers,” but they plunged ahead. Like his early 20th-century predecessor Robert Speer, who sought to transform Denver into the “Paris of America,” Peña wanted to rebuild the city.

Peña understood what his critics couldn’t: Times had changed and Denver was on the verge of dramatic change. In structure and reach, the SCFD was unprecedented in American history, but its supporters persisted. The quarreling nonprofits settled their differences, and the measure easily passed.

SCFD started the flood.

“When Peña took office [in 1983], Denver was floundering in one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression,” wrote Dinah Zeiger in The SCFD Story, “but in his eight years as mayor, he persuaded the city’s citizens to invest billions in its infrastructure.”

In three years, voters approved the SCFD, the new airport, massive infrastructure improvements and more, including a sales tax to build Coors Field for the Colorado Rockies.

“It’s not a funding source for buildings. It’s about sustaining the day-to-day work of these organizations.” 

– Susan Edmondson

Colorado Springs turns inward

Denver’s success didn’t go unnoticed. Hoping that Colorado Springs voters might be receptive, local nonprofit leaders crafted a similar proposal in 1990. Its major beneficiaries included the library, zoo, museums and the symphony. It would, backers claimed, benefit children’s education, strengthen the community and stimulate the economy.

Skeptics called it a blatant ripoff, an attempt by special interests to pick the pockets of hard-working taxpayers. It probably didn’t help that the measure’s title wouldn’t fit in a newspaper headline. It may have been a scientific and cultural facilities tax, but the Gazette’s headline writers gave it a new moniker: Arts Tax.

The editorial writers didn’t much like it, either, highlighting the paper’s opposition in a piece titled “It’s a taxing time for the arts.”

Voters rejected it, and turned down a similar countywide measure in 1992.

Rather than following Denver’s lead, Colorado Springs residents took a different path, giving powerful support to local and statewide measures intended to limit public spending.

Scientific, cultural and arts facilities receive comparatively little public support here. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center rely exclusively on private funding, while the Philharmonic receives a modest payment from the city’s tourism tax funds to help mount free summer concerts in the parks.

The 1982 Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts was constructed using federal grants to El Paso County, support from El Pomar Foundation and extensive private funding, but no local tax revenues. It continues to operate without tax subsidy.

The city is the owner and primary public funder of the Pioneers Museum and City Auditorium, but city officials have long sought to exit from those responsibilities. A local SCFD might facilitate that exit, stabilize and revive those facilities and help sustain nonprofits large and small. It could also be part of the funding package for the proposed science and children’s museums.

Chance for an encore?

“It would be great if we could get it passed,” said civic leader and former City Councilor Mary Ellen McNally, who worked on the first initiative. “It’s not 1990 anymore. If the stormwater authority passes, that may be a change in the mindset of the community. We have a wonderful arts community, and it’s getting stronger.”

“I honestly have no idea what direction the community would take on that,” said a surprised Susan Edmondson, who directs the Downtown Partnership. “But there’s no denying what the SCFD did for Denver. It has been one of the key pieces in creating today’s city. It’s not a funding source for buildings. It’s about sustaining the day-to-day work of these organizations, and nurturing amazing new ones like the Curious Theatre Company.”

Launched 16 years ago, the Curious Theatre Company now employs 28 professional actors, designers and directors, and has its own theater in a renovated historic church.

“I think you have to approach it from an economic development standpoint,” said City Councilor Jan Martin. “But we’ve been so tax-averse for so long that it’s catching up with us. It’ll take us a few years to work through everything we have to do before we can think about an SCFD.”

That includes the stormwater initiative, finding a way to fund city infrastructure needs and City for Champions.

“I’d love to see an arts district, though,” said Martin. “Look at how much we’ve done with so little!”