Art group clashes with city manager
By AMY WIMMER
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001
ST. PETE BEACH -- The relationship between the city manager and the St. Pete Beach Art Institute, a fixture in Pass-a-Grille, has deteriorated so badly that the group might hold off plans to help renovate the Don Vista Building and has even inquired about moving to Gulfport.
In a letter last week to City Commissioner John Phillips, institute president Johnna Patterson criticized City Manager Carl Schwing's lack of enthusiasm for renovating the Don Vista and said he allowed a grant for the building to slip through the city's fingers.
"We can't get any cooperation," Patterson said.
Schwing counters that the art institute is backing away from promises to raise private money for the renovation but still expects the city to hold up its end of the deal.
"The city has a wide variety of constituents we have to serve," Schwing said. "The art institute is one of them. We have spent a considerable amount of time and energy and many hours working with the art institute."
Hanging in the balance is a $27,300 grant already awarded to the city to fund the planning stages of the Don Vista renovation.
Dealings between Schwing and the art institute began early last year, when the art institute approached the City Commission about renovating the Don Vista, which is next to the Don CeSar. The front portion of the building has housed the art institute, formerly the Suntan Art Center, for 20 of its 40 years in St. Pete Beach.
The commission was supportive and authorized Schwing to work with the art institute to reach an agreement.
The institute offered to apply for cultural or historical grants from the state, and the commission agreed to put $150,000 toward the project. The art institute would raise $300,000, and when the building that looks lovely on the outside but is ill-used on the inside was complete, the art institute would operate it.
According to both Schwing and Patterson, that plan began to change. The city's expected contribution grew to $250,000, a figure Schwing was still willing to recommend to the commission.
And when the art institute and city received a planning grant, the Tallahassee committee that awarded it encouraged the art institute and city representatives to also apply for a grant to replace the building's windows and doors.
"They were most enthusiastic about the project," Patterson said. "They think it's wonderful. They are ready to adopt it and stay with us until we are totally renovated."
Patterson maintains that the grant could have been quickly applied for because the information was already assembled for the other grant. But Schwing says he did not have enough time to get commission approval; plus the art institute originally had agreed to work only on the building's interior.
Patterson soon learned that state grants might be available to fund even more of the project than she originally realized, and the city's contribution would remain the same as expected. Raising private donations no longer would be necessary, she thought.
Schwing, however, was concerned that the city would be giving operation of a city building to a local group even though the group had not raised the significant amount of money it had promised as its part of the deal.
"It so significantly changed the deal that the comfort level is not there," Schwing said.
Patterson said Schwing has made the art institute's negotiations with the city "impossible."
"I'm not asking them for any more money," Patterson said. "In my opinion, I thought this was fabulous that we wouldn't have to ask the citizens of St. Pete Beach for more money if we could find a way to get $300,000 other than having my little afternoon painters go out and beg it."
The art institute, meanwhile, has written to the Gulfport Arts Council, inquiring about possible space there for a new art club. But the art institute still hopes to regain the backing of commissioners when its representatives appear at a February meeting.
"My whole concept of this is, the only person I work with down there is Carl Schwing, and I have not seen really that much enthusiasm from him about this project," Patterson said. "The commission thought it was fabulous. It's for the community."
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