Reacting to a wave of public criticism, Rock Hill leaders said Friday they will suspend money for an art piece at the water treatment plant and instead try to pay for the project with private donations and grants.
"Given the economic climate, maybe the timing wasn't as good," Mayor Doug Echols told The Herald. "The reasons for public enhancements are still valid. But maybe we can figure out a way to pay for them with private funds."
The reversal comes less than a week after Echols and four City Council members voted to spend $50,000 in hospitality tax money for an art piece outside the plant, located at Cherry and Mount Gallant roads along one of the city's busiest thoroughfares.
Critics assailed the project as extravagant at a time when many people are out of work and struggling to pay bills. They voiced their distaste through calls to City Hall and letters to The Herald.
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Echols said he'll ask the City Council to take formal action at its next meeting on Feb. 23.
"They're not even close to what the average working person thinks," said Bill Osborne of Rock Hill, who was laid off two years ago from a plant south of town. "Fifty thousand dollars, I just don't get it. It's hard to justify art, the way people are losing their jobs."
Project put on hold
A group of Winthrop University art students and professors planned to install the piece this summer. Though a design hadn't been drawn up, the group envisioned colorful silhouette images atop steel posts, possibly 12 feet to 15 feet high. The piece would convey the importance of water.
But for now, it's on hold while the city puts together options for raising private donations and grants. Councilwoman Kathy Pender, who voted in favor on Monday night, said she supports the change.
"Public art will add value to this area, just as it has in other areas of the city," Pender said. "But I want to find a way to do this without using public funds."
That task could prove difficult. Asked whether the project would ultimately get done, Echols said, "I don't know. It'll be a matter of whether we can find a combination of grants and private dollars. I would hope there's some interest out there. But it may take a while to see whether there is. This is a hard time to raise money."
The change of plans drew a positive reaction from Councilman Kevin Sutton, who had questioned why Echols and others made the decision in the first place. Sutton and Jim Reno voted in opposition.
"The points he's citing were made by Jim and myself," Sutton said. "They were just going to push this through no matter what, until the public outcry, and possibly this being an election year, helped change their minds. Whatever the case, it's a good thing."
Debate over tax resurfaces
The episode marks the latest flare-up in a debate that has simmered for years in Rock Hill. Hospitality tax revenues -- which come from a 2 percent tax on prepared food and drinks at restaurants and bars -- must be spent on tourism-related upgrades.
Opinions differ on what the definition includes.
Since 2002, city officials have used the tax for scores of improvements, from ponds and fountains at Glencairn Garden to new dugout roofs at Cherry Park. The tax helped pay for the city's Manchester Meadows soccer complex and the Rock Hill Tennis Center.
In this case, the city asked artists to suggest ideas for enlivening the water treatment plant, an industrial-looking complex in the heart of the Cherry Road retail corridor.
Originally, the city considered water fountains that would have cost $250,000 before scaling back to a less expensive project.
"It's basically an industrial site and we can't move it," said Echols. "So we have to make sure that we enhance it as much as we can so that's it not an eyesore."
But critics questioned the city's choice for how to achieve that goal.
"I'd be OK with 50K in art projects on Cherry Road if they would tear down one check cashing place for every piece of art," said Steve Polhamus of Rock Hill. "Then I would believe the area is being improved."
Better uses for money?
Supporters argue that beautification along Cherry Road helped attract a Super Bi-Lo and spur a $10 million renovation at Northeast Plaza, an aging strip center.
On Friday, Echols said the justification is still valid. But he acknowledged the timing left a bad impression.
"People are upset with government in a lot of ways," Echols said. "There's just general frustration with all they're hearing and reading about the national government situation. All that kind of blends in to people's decision-making, and I understand that."
Opponents point to an additional factor: Restaurants are suffering in the poor economy, meaning Rock Hill can expect to collect fewer hospitality tax dollars over the coming year. Sutton cited figures showing the city is $250,000 short on budgeted revenues through the first six months of the fiscal year.
Wayne Wingate, a former board chairman of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce, called on the city to find better ways to foster economic development.
A holiday or rebate on hospitality taxes would do more to help merchants than an art project, particularly amid the recession, he said. Wingate estimates that his Durango Bagel shop pays $500 to $700 per month in hospitality taxes.
"They made the decision initially, which I think demonstrates they may be out of touch," Wingate said Friday. "But they did have the good sense to reverse their position. They deserve credit for that."