Georgetown Current

Evans Bill Could Help Assist Blues Alley

May 15, 2013

By Elizabeth Wiener
Current Staff Writer

Helping “historic music cultural institutions” survive, by offering public funds or a tax break? D.C. has done so with the Lincoln Theatre and the Howard. And now a bill introduced by Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans is aimed at easing the money woes of Blues Alley.

The bill was “provided” by Blues Alley, the owner of the venerable Georgetown jazz club said at a hearing last week, but takes a “broad-brush approach.” Owner Harry Schnipper was one of two witnesses to testify on the measure, which received a fairly neutral review from an aide to Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, the city’s budget watchdog.

The bill would, in essence, exempt “historic music cultural institutions” from real property taxes for 10 years, and from any transfer or deed recordation taxes, if they purchase or lease space with the “goal of expanding public live music and cultural entertainment and employment opportunities” in the District.

There are many caveats. To be eligible, for example, the beneficiary would have had to operate for at least 45 years here, hosting a minimum of 100 live performances a year. And the expansion must occur within a year before or within five years after the bill takes effect. At least 50 percent of the venue’s new hires must be District residents. And the total tax abatement — for all who qualify — would be no more than $2 million.

Schnipper of Blues Alley offered a compelling case for tax relief.

“America’s oldest continuing jazz supper club” opened in 1965 in a former horse barn off Wisconsin Avenue and prospered in its early years, he said. Then in the 1970s, with the rise of nonprofit competition — the Smithsonian, the Kennedy Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society, all presenting jazz among other offerings — “suddenly we became an anomaly.”

Now, he said, most of his competitors get “preferential tax rates.” And with the rising cost of rent and property taxes in Georgetown, the survival of Blues Alley is under threat. “Does Blues Alley have the ability to compete? I don’t know,” Schnipper told Evans’ Committee on Finance and Revenue. He cited the closings of Childe Harold, the Cellar Door, the Bayou and other commercial music venues in D.C. “Once a jazz club goes away, it never comes back.”

Beyond its contributions to Georgetown’s economy and to local hotels where visiting artists stay, Schnipper said his firm also has a nonprofit arm, offering a summer camp, a year-round youth orchestra, and programs in public schools.

Schnipper did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his future plans. But according to the Washington Business Journal, he’s been offered a chance to buy the Blues Alley building, which sits in an alley of the same name off Wisconsin Avenue.

Schnipper, the Business Journal reported in April, has also considered taking space at CityCenter DC and other locations, and was an active bidder to run the city-owned Lincoln Theatre on U Street. The theater’s new operator has been selected but not announced.

He’s also said — and many patrons agree — that he would like to remain in Georgetown. Schnipper testified that when he approached his council member for help, “Evans said, ‘I can’t help you with the lease, but can help with taxes.’”

Evans, who lives in Georgetown, spoke only briefly at last week’s hearing, saying he would move the bill at the council’s next session. “It’s not specifically written for Blues Alley, but could be helpful to keep Blues Alley in Georgetown. Blues Alley is known worldwide,” he said. “Because [the area] is becoming so prosperous, let’s not drive out what makes us who we are.”

Betsy Keeler, the chief financial officer’s deputy director for economic development financing, said she couldn’t determine whether tax relief is needed “because no historic music institution is specifically identified in the bill.” The office also hasn’t determined how much the bill would cost the city. “But,” Keeler said, “because the legislation caps it at $2 million, that would be the maximum fiscal impact.”

Ed Lazere of the liberal-leaning DC Fiscal Policy Institute noted in an interview that the District has given tax breaks to other private firms, most recently high-tech firms like Living Social, without directly naming them in legislation that grants the abatements.

But, he said, “we think it’s deceptive to provide targeted tax breaks for individual businesses” without naming them. “If the tax break is intended for Blues Alley, and everyone understands that, then it should say that. If they’re really struggling, we can evaluate that. But that would be more honest,” Lazere said.

 

This article appears in the May 15 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Chancellor Rebuffs Plea to Reverse Fillmore Cuts

May 8, 2013

By Deirdre Bannon

Current Staff Writer

Despite urgent calls from parents at several District schools to reverse funding cuts for the Fillmore Arts Center, the D.C. Public Schools system is arguing that the arts education program doesn’t serve enough schools to justify a higher allocation.

According to Friends of Fillmore, a volunteer group that supports the arts center, Fillmore is projected to serve about 3,000 students next year, about the same number that attended during the 2011-2012 school year — yet Fillmore’s budget is down by at least $250,000.

D.C. Public Schools says that budget cut is due to the drop in the number of participating schools, from 11 to eight, but Fillmore supporters argue that the budget should be based on the number of students.

Fillmore offers a music, visual arts, drama and dance curriculum to pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade students from eight schools, including five in Northwest, at its two co-locations — Hardy Middle School in Georgetown and Raymond Education Campus in Petworth. The program was founded under the principle that arts education in a central location could provide a stronger curriculum and more resources than neighborhood schools could offer on their own.

The program has had its budget reduced by more than 40 percent over the past four years, to just over $1 million as proposed for the 2014 fiscal year, according the Friends of Fillmore and other stakeholders. Fillmore supporters fear the current per-pupil funding cuts are so significant that the nearly 40-year-old program may no longer be viable.

PTA presidents from Key, Hyde-Addison, Marie Reed, Ross and Stoddert elementary schools — the five Northwest schools served by Fillmore — sent a letter last month to D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson urging her to restore the art center’s budget. There’s also an online petition asking the same, which now has more than 1,000 signatures.

On Friday, Henderson responded that budget cuts are a result of fewer schools and students participating in Fillmore’s program next year — and she noted that Fillmore principal Katherine Latterner has had the chance to recruit new schools.
But stakeholders like Key Elementary School PTA president Sunny Kaplan say the chancellor “is off the mark.”

“The cuts we are protesting are not related to the fact that four schools are not continuing with Fillmore. … We are talking about per-pupil funding, which is down 40 percent over four years,” Kaplan wrote to Henderson on Tuesday.

Further, Kaplan argues that there was no opportunity for Fillmore principal Latterner to recruit additional schools because “DCPS put specific instructions in the budget book that forbade new schools from signing up for Fillmore. Only later, after the budget process was finished and all the schools had finalized their staffing and plans, did DCPS allow more schools to sign up for Fillmore. These schools had already hired teachers, gotten their budgets approved by their [local school advisory teams],” she wrote to Henderson.

“DCPS appears to be building a case that schools are fleeing Fillmore, and we’re unable to recruit new ones. This, again, is a fiction perpetuated by DCPS,” said Kelly Richmond, Friends of Fillmore board president.

D.C. Public Schools spokesperson Melissa Salmanowitz said yesterday she wasn’t immediately familiar with Kaplan’s letter and couldn’t respond to questions before The Current’s deadline.

In Henderson’s testimony before the D.C. Council Committee on Education’s budget oversight hearing Thursday, the chancellor said repeatedly that public school budgets are based on enrollment figures and that “the money follows the children.”

But Fillmore stakeholders say the school system isn’t actually applying that standard to the arts program, which is instead allotted funding based on the number of participating schools, rather than the enrollment figures. Stakeholders say that’s at the crux of the problem and that Henderson and D.C. Public schools officials won’t address it.

“DCPS has never substantively engaged with what Friends of Fillmore or the Fillmore Arts Center’s constituency has to say about the budget,” said Tilman Wuerschmidt, the Key Elementary PTA representative to Friends of Fillmore. “They will only say that the number of participating schools is why they reduced funding, and any other rationale, like looking at per-pupil funding, is completely irrelevant to them. It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Fillmore historically relied on per-pupil funding, but in recent years participating schools instead have been asked to contribute the amount they’re allocated for arts and music teachers — anywhere from the value of one to three faculty member salaries, depending on the size of the school. The school system recently reduced that allocation by half a salaried position per school to fund a world languages program.

Mary Levy, a longtime expert on D.C. Public Schools budgeting, conducted an independent analysis of the projected cuts to Fillmore. She found that D.C. Public Schools has reduced the number of arts and music positions at five of the eight schools slated to attend classes at Fillmore next year — and because those schools turn over that funding to pay for Fillmore, the art center’s budget is down about $250,000.

At-large Council member David Catania, who chairs the Education Committee, was critical at Thursday’s hearing of the cuts several schools were slated to absorb in the school system’s budget proposal — which ranged from 5 to 17 percent. He proposed capping any one school’s budget cuts at 5 percent, so there would be a “softening of that consequence when we have dramatic reductions,” and so cuts aren’t “so dramatic that it has the effect of destabilizing the school and disrupting the program for those children who remain.”

Catania said he would look to establish a stabilization fund for schools so impacted, but it’s unclear whether Fillmore would be included in that plan.

This article appears in the May 8 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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Local Landmarks Vie for Funding in Contest

May 1, 2013

By Katie Pearce
Current Staff Writer

The Washington National Cathedral is in the lead right now, with more than 350,000 points, while the Mount Vernon estate and Sixth & I Historic Synagogue trail closely behind. Chugging along the end of the pack, with 4,800 points, is a little house and mill along the C&O Canal.

Those are the current rankings in the Partners in Preservation contest, in which local historic sites are competing — via social media — for a slice of $1 million. The D.C. area is the eighth in the country to be a part of the contest, run by the American Express Co. in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Throughout the region, 24 sites are now vying for funds to complete shovel-ready preservation projects. The popular winner, to be confirmed May 10, will receive up to $100,000. At the halfway point of campaigning now, all of the sites will host open house events this weekend.

The historic spots, which are all run by nonprofits or government agencies according to contest rules, build up points by gathering support through social media sites. A vote on the contest’s website, at preservedmv.com, is good for 50 points. And a site earns 10 points each time a supporter checks into its location on Foursquare, posts a picture of it on Instagram, or mentions it via hashtag on Twitter.

This is the first year the contest — which in the past has taken place in New York City, Seattle and Boston, among other areas — has emphasized social media to such a degree. And it could be an explanation for why the more well-known and media-savvy sites are gathering the most points in D.C., compared to contests past.

“We’re actually somewhat surprised with the results this year,” said Tim McClimon, vice president for corporate social responsibility for American Express. In previous contests, he said, “smaller sites that have been able to get people passionately behind them” have taken the lead — in Boston, for example, a rundown carousel edged out the New England Aquarium and the Old North Church.

In the D.C. area, the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue is standing out as a tough competitor against the national name brands of the National Cathedral and Mount Vernon. “They’re a small entity that’s doing a fantastic job in getting their constituents to vote,” said Robert Niewig, leader of the National Trust’s D.C. field office.

The GALA Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, which is trying to win funds to restore its deteriorating central dome, is now in next-to-last place. “Putting it out there with social media is very hard to do with a small staff” and busy programming schedule, said Rebecca Medrano, GALA’s executive director. “It’s going to be hard for us to catch up.”

But she described the potential funding as “a one-time opportunity we really need to jump on.” As is, Medrano said, any funding the theater does raise goes straight into its “265 days a year in programming.”

Another obstacle for some of the smaller groups has been a lack of experience in social media. Contest organizers have helped with that: After selecting the finalists last fall, “we started training programs with them … to build their social media sites and start building their fan base and friends, so everyone would be on equal footing,” said McClimon of American Express.

For the Dumbarton Oaks Park Conservancy — now in 19th place as it campaigns for funds to rehabilitate one of the dams in the Georgetown park — it’s a new kind of terrain.

Before the contest, “we had a Web page, we had a fairly static Facebook page,” said Ann Aldrich, the conservancy’s executive director. But she noted “most of the board of the conservancy are of an older generation — not digital mavens — so it’s been interesting.”

The Rock Creek Conservancy, which is competing for a project to restore the 16th Street grotto entrance to Meridian Hill Park, has also had to “pick up its game” online, according to executive director Beth Mullin.

She questioned whether the conservancy, now in 17th place in the contest, has been able to capitalize on the park’s popularity and its “media-savvy” neighbors in the U Street area. “I’m just not sure we’ve actually reached them yet,” she said.

Mullin said the conservancy will be present at Meridian Hill this Sunday with a table and tour guides during the park’s most popular ritual, its weekly drum circle celebration.

For a handful of this year’s sites, the contest also creates another type of challenge — internal competition. Seven of the sites, including the Marine Corps Memorial and the Carter G. Woodson Home, are all part of the National Park Service.

“Some of my co-workers are voting for other places and can’t really support this site,” said Joy Kinard, a Park Service district manager who is focused on the Woodson house. The $90,000 requested would go toward restoring the front and rear facades of the Shaw house, where the man known as “the father of black history” lived and worked in the early 20th century.

Kinard said she has reached deep into the network of Woodson supporters to earn points — contacting, for example, the fraternity he belonged to and alumni groups of the schools he attended.

Niewig of the National Trust noted that all of the sites will receive at least $5,000 for participating, and that the pool of money that remains beyond the winner’s award will be doled out to a handful of finalists at the discretion of an advisory committee.

 

This article appears in the May 1 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.


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