A controversial art piece proposed at Rock Hill's water treatment plant returns to the spotlight Monday night, and it might not stay there long. City leaders are expected to cancel money for the project, a move that would reverse a decision made two weeks ago.
Instead of using $50,000 in hospitality tax revenues to pay for the piece, Mayor Doug Echols says he wants to pursue private donations and grants. Other council members have signaled support for that approach.
The shift would satisfy critics who assailed the project as extravagant at a time when many people are out of work and struggling to pay the bills. They voiced their distaste through calls to City Hall and letters to The Herald.
"As much as I would like to continue the beautification, I think we do need to listen to the community," Councilwoman Susie Hinton said. "It's not the best of times. I certainly would like to see it happen. It's just a matter of how, and who would be responsible."
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A group of Winthrop University art students and professors planned to install the piece this summer. They envisioned colorful silhouette images atop tall steel posts, with the goal of conveying the importance of water.
Retooling for the future
Fine arts professor Tom Stanley, who was to oversee the work, said he plans to thank the City Council for considering the project in the first place. Though the public criticism has frustrated him, Stanley indicated that he'll take a conciliatory tone at the council's 6 p.m. meeting.
"In the 19 years I have called Rock Hill my home, it has been the innovative leadership of city staff and officials that has made Rock Hill distinct ... especially as the textile industry began to disappear and we had to retool," Stanley said in an e-mail to The Herald. "Indeed, that is what we are trying to do now -- retooling for the future."
Stanley will be joined by students and arts boosters eager to speak up for their craft. An invitation set up through the social networking Web site Facebook.com had nine confirmed guests and 22 "maybes" as of Saturday evening.
Many supporters are upset at how the project has been portrayed, saying critics are leaving out key details.
For example, backers emphasize that under state law, hospitality tax revenues must be spent within two years of when they are collected. The $50,000 had already been set aside in the city's $3.9 million hospitality tax budget.
Others point out the project would give work to young artists, as well as local and regional vendors who would provide construction materials and equipment such as trucks and cranes.
The question now is whether the piece will ever get done. It would compete for donations among a crowded field of other projects around York County, including the renovation of the White Home and Hightower Hall as well as a county museum envisioned along the Catawba River.
"I really have no idea how or if this will actually proceed from this point," Stanley said. "I can be an advocate, but that is about it."
A familiar debate
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.
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, officials considered water fountains that would have cost $250,000 before scaling back to a less expensive project.
As the process evolved, the nation's economic woes deepened.
"I'm a longtime Rock Hillian, and I don't have a problem with art," real estate agent Randy Hunsucker said.
"I just can't get the connection with the water filter plant. That's just not a necessity at all right now."
Stanley responded to some of the more outspoken critics in last week's edition of The Johnsonian student newspaper.
"Art is not just for the best of times," he told the paper. "To suggest that the arts, that true public art projects are in any way frivolous is unthinkable and irresponsible. It is the visibility of the arts that makes it an easy target displacing the larger issues facing the Rock Hill."