Largest metro arts organizations offer major concession for good of SCFD

Daniel Ritchie presents proposed changes reducing the percentage of Tier I revenues. Photo by John Moore.
Daniel L. Ritchie presents proposed changes to the way SCFD funding would be allocated at a meeting on Thursday. Photo by John Moore. 

A wide-ranging task force has recommended major changes to the way metro-area arts organizations are funded through the 27-year-old Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which goes before voters for reauthorization in 2016. 

The SCFD is a penny-per-$10 sales tax that is expected to generate $56 million for 278 metro arts organizations this year alone. The unique, voter-approved taxing district is structured into three tiers, with the metro area’s five largest institutions constituting Tier I: The Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver Art Museum, Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Denver Zoo. There are 27 arts groups in in Tier II, and 246 in Tier III.

If the task force’s recommendations are approved by the full board, the region’s largest cultural institutions would voluntarily give up about 5.78 percent of their share of the annual pie. That would make an additional estimated $2.2 million a year available to be shared by the area’s smaller metro arts organizations.

The new funding formula would most benefit those organizations after the first $38 million in revenues is collected. At that threshold, Tier I’s share would drop from 64 percent to 57, Tier II‘s would grow from 22 to 26 and Tier III’s would grow from 14 to 17.

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Task force member Jim Harrington, citing unity and community, said all five of the Tier I organizations have agreed to the proposed changes. “I think it’s fair and I think it’s responsible – and I think it allows the district to be accountable and transparent to the taxpayers,” said Harrington who added that the process leading up to these recommendations has been four years in the making. 

“It’s the right thing to do,” added DCPA Chairman Daniel L. Ritchie, who recently resigned his title as the DCPA’s chief executive officer to dedicate himself full-time to a successful SCFD reauthorization. He said anything less than a favorable vote in November 2016 would be “a catastrophe for Colorado.”

It is estimated that the SCFD has been responsible for $1.85 billion in economic activity. And the NEA recently reported Colorado has the highest rate of citizen participation among all states in cultural activities. 

“Our organizations are grateful for the region’s citizens for these dollars as they enable us to serve the public with world-class programming and provide access to our institutions and collections,” Ritchie said. 

By law, the SCFD taxing district that began in 1988 expires if it is not brought before the voters for reauthorization every 12 years. Voters have twice renewed the tax by wide margins, but the metro arts landscape changes greatly in a dozen years. That requires a reconsideration of the complicated formula that dictates how funds are distributed. SCFD member organizations have grown from 171 to 278 since 1990. Tier II has grown by 271 percent by number of organizations, and Tier III’s are up 83 percent. Ritchie said it is only fair, then, that more funds be made available to those groups, citing the “greater good.” 

“Honestly we all could use more money, but this is the right plan for SCFD’s future,” Ritchie added. “I am proud of the plan we put forth to the board.”

The SCFD board will issue a ruling on Thursday’s recommendations in May or June, Harrington said. If adopted, the DCPA would accept an 8.43 percent drop in its potential SCFD revenues, or about $570,000 in the first year. But because growth projections predict that the SCFD should be generating $57.8 million a year by 2017, the loss to Tier I organizations would come from future growth – not actual current dollars.

In fact, the SCFD task force forecasts that, if implemented, the Tier I’s would still see an increase of about $618,000 a year in 2017, while Tier II’s would see a $1.5 million increase and the Tier III pie would grow by $1 million. 

“So everybody wins,” Harrington said.

The task force’s recommendations were presented at a public gathering at Hudson Gardens in Littleton. It was attended by representative from dozens of metro arts groups. Most took the opportunity to publicly praise the thoroughness of the task force’s work.

“The SCFD is a miracle of our state that no one else has,” said Brian Vogt of the Denver Botanic Gardens. He called the task force’s approach “reasonable, rational and fair.”

Deborah Malden, Chair of the Boulder County Cultural Council, thanked the task force for acknowledging that the statute needed refreshing, and thanked the Tier I’s for their concessions.

There was some dissent. Jane Potts, Program Administrator for SCFD’s Tier III’s, advocated for an even greater redistribution for the smallest arts organizations. Tier III’s represent 83 percent of SCFD membership and Potts said they account for 30 percent of all attendance. “The SCFD is the best thing that has ever happened to Denver,” she said, “but if they have a third of the audience, I think they deserve more than 17 percent of the pie.” 

Tony Garcia, founder of the Denver’s 43-year-old Su Teatro, was a member of the task force and has long been the loudest critic of the current funding formula. But he did not attend Thursday’s meeting.

Erin Rollman and Brian Colonna, members of Denver’s Tier III Buntport Theater, were pleasantly surprised by the scope of the recommendations.

“Would we like to see Tier III’s get a bigger piece of the pie? Sure,” said Rollman. “But could we reasonably have expected any more concessions from the Tier I’s than this? Probably not.”

She also acknowledged that it is largely the reputation and resources of the Tier I organizations that account for the tax’s existence and continued life. “They do all the heavy lifting on reauthorization,” she said. “Do people go into the ballot box and vote to give money to Buntport Theater? Of course not. They vote yes because they like free days at the museum or the Denver Zoo. And we all benefit from that.”

Deborah Jordy, Executive Director the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts pointed out that the SCFD’s $56 million in revenues are the equivalent to about a third of the NEA’s entire budget. “And that goes to just 278 organizations right here in Colorado,” she said.

More than 330 individuals participated over the course of the task force’s four years, accounting for more than 3,200 volunteered hours of study. All tiers and all counties were represented.

Daniel Ritchie presents proposed changes reducing the percentage of Tier I revenues. Photo by John Moore.

Some of the other proposed changes:

The task force also recommended that the Tier I organizations change how their pie is distributed among themselves. If approved, the big winner would be the Denver Botanic Gardens, which would see its share rise from 11.75 percent to 13.25 percent. The DCPA’s share would drop from 18.18 percent to 17.68.

*The SCFD would add some flexibility to considering literary arts – specifically spoken word – for funding eligibility.

*New Tier III organizations would have to show an annual operating income of at least $25,000 or have been in existence for 10 years for eligibility.

*Organizations would be allowed to add free attendance for consideration in their applications (in addition to current paid attendance and revenue). 


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John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.