Public art and municipal water treatment would seem to share little in common. But in Rock Hill, one soon could be used to illuminate the other.
A group of Winthrop University art students and professors hope to install an art piece outside the city's water treatment plant on Cherry Road, describing it as a way to convey the importance of water and the need to use it wisely.
Though a design hasn't been drawn up, the group envisions colorful silouhette images atop steel posts, possibly 12 to 15 feet high. The piece would incorporate light and movement, possibly with some images moving in the wind.
City leaders will decide Monday night whether to spend $50,000 in hospitality tax revenues to cover construction costs.
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If approved, the project could be completed by summer.
"We want to look at the function of water within a community, how it's a giver of life," said Tom Stanley, chair of Winthrop's fine arts department. "Water, like air, is something we take for granted."
To opponents, it's a case of bad timing. The $50,000 proposal comes amid an economic downturn that has put many out of work. When budget talks start in May, the city has signaled that it could consider a tax increase to hire more police officers.
"Right now's not a time to spend money on some art," said conservative activist Rod Benfield, a critic of city spending. "We do not need to spend a bunch of tax money when we need it in other places."
The city asked artists to suggest ideas for enlivening the water treatment plant, an industrial-looking complex at the corner of Cherry and Mount Gallant roads. A recent $13.5 million renovation brought bigger pipes and a third storage tank to help keep pace with growth.
"Public art is often called in to offer a remedy to some poor architecture," Winthrop art professor Shaun Cassidy said. "There are aspects of that building that are OK. But I think some well-placed public art on the front lawn will be interesting."
The project would mark Rock Hill's latest foray into the world of public art, adding to a history that includes its share of controversy.
In 1989, the city commissioned sculptor Audrey Flack to create the four Civitas statues that stand at the entrance to TechPark on Dave Lyle Boulevard. A fifth stands in City Hall.
When the statues were dedicated in 1992, protesters showed up with black balloons to denounce what they called frivolous use of some $1 million in public money. Funding came from a special tax from property in TechPark.
This time, the Winthrop group said it wants plenty of advice from the public in designing the piece. Stanley and Cassidy would lead students in the school's Artists in Civic Engagement (ACE) program.
"Good public art should act as a way to disrupt people's everyday lives, like a good book or a movie," said Cassidy, who heads the sculpture program, "and get them to think about things in a slightly different way."
Supporters of public art argue that it conveys a sense of place, particularly as Rock Hill redefines its identity and evolves from a textile town past.
That argument has gained momentum in recent years. A 28-foot tall art piece was installed last year outside the renovated Cotton Factory in downtown. Called "Loom," the piece evokes the knitting looms that once hummed inside the former mill.
The complex is home to the Williams & Fudge college loan collection firm.
"Art is part of what makes the town come alive," Williams & Fudge CEO Gary Williams said last year. "We want to be part of that. We want to do something more than just the building."
No public money was spent on that project. The price tag -- estimated at slightly more than $100,000 -- was covered by Williams and partners Bob Perrin and Bryan Barwick, with $25,000 chipped in by the Rock Hill Sesquicentennial Committee.
Given the level of public involvement, the latest idea would represent a breakthrough for arts boosters.
"We've had some great things (happen) here," Winthrop's Stanley said, "and we want to take it another step."
What is the hospitality tax?
Like many other local governments across South Carolina, Rock Hill charges a 2 percent tax on prepared food and drinks at restaurants and bars. State law requires that the money be spent on tourism-related marketing and attractions.