August 7, 2014

Diversity debate rankles Columbia panel that deals with arts, tourism funding

An effort by Mayor Steve Benjamin to have a citizens committee pay closer attention to diversity in the city’s spending of millions of dollars in meal-tax money drew sharp rebuttals Thursday.

An effort by Mayor Steve Benjamin to have a citizens committee pay closer attention to diversity in the city’s spending of millions of dollars in meal-tax money drew sharp rebuttals Thursday.

“This is insulting,” businesswoman and developer Rosie Craig said upon hearing that a former committee member who is now USC’s chief diversity officer had found that only 10 percent of the committee’s allocations went to organizations managed by minorities.

“We based our recommendations on merit,” said Eddie Wales, owner of Motor Supply Company Bistro.

The issue arose Thursday as the 11-member City Council-appointed committee recommended that $325,000 in extra funding should be divvied among 46 arts and civic groups.

Benjamin last month asked committee members to meet with John Dozier, named to the University of South Carolina post last year. Dozier later submitted his analysis of the committee’s decisions to council members at Benjamin’s request.

Committee chairman John Whitehead was so dissatisfied with the diversity report by Dozier that Whitehead did his own analysis.

Whitehead found that nearly 80 percent of the committee’s funding recommendations went to minority groups.

Every year, the committee closely examines applications for about $2.5 million in coveted meal-tax revenue that by law is called “hospitality” taxes or H taxes. After days of in-depth interviews with organizations seeking the money, the panel votes on funding. Council usually agrees with the committee’s recommendations when it makes the final decisions.

“His figures were skewed by not having enough information,” Whitehead said of Dozier’s report. Whitehead disputes Dozier’s census data on the city of Columbia as well as which organizations Dozier chose to classify as “minority managed.”

Dozier told The State newspaper that he prepared his report as a city resident – not as USC’s recently appointed chief diversity officer.

He said he grew concerned about the committee’s financial decisions during his one-year term on the panel. Dozier said he noticed, for example, that the city’s Italian festival received more money than the Latino festival even though, by Dozier’s observations, they drew the same number of visitors.

“What I found was a dramatic inequity ... across all organizations,” said Dozier, who has a doctoral degree in education administration from DePaul University.

“You don’t have to have a background in diversity to look at a spreadsheet and reach some conclusions about what seems inequitable,” he said. The committee uses spreadsheets to track its recommendations to council.

Dozier named 21 of the 80-plus organizations that seek the money as “minority managed.” His report shows those 21 groups asked for 22 percent of the funding and received 10 percent.

Columbia finance officials projected the city will generate $10.6 million from H-taxes during the fiscal year that ended June 30. The money comes from patrons who pay a 2 percent tax on prepared meals and beverages, largely at restaurants and bars.

During deliberations each year, the committee examines attendance and financial data from organizations that seek money to promote events, hire staff, provide services and even construct or renovate buildings – all with a goal of attracting tourists who open their wallets while they are visiting town.

“He didn’t have any applications,” committee member Terry Davis, owner of Thirsty Fellow, a restaurant and bar in the Vista, said Thursday of Dozier’s report. “He didn’t hear any interviews.”

Dozier did not dispute that his analysis did not use as much detailed information as the committee reviews when it makes decisions.

No one on the committee spoke in support of Dozier’s findings.

Later during its meeting, the panel unanimously rejected a last-minute $75,000 request for a Black Male Initiative.

Longtime committee member Will Green compared figures in that application to figures submitted by Black Expo. “They’ve used the exact same stuff. This doesn’t appear to be a distinct application.”

“He’s not bringing new celebrities,” added Terrence Garrick, referring to Expo organizer Darrin Thomas. “It’s the same people he’s bringing for Black Expo.”

The committee unanimously rejected the application.

“We did what the mayor asked us to do,” said Whitehead, director of Columbia Music Festival, which represents about a dozen arts groups. “We’re doing what we should do without paying special attention to it,” he said, attributing diversity in funding to the diverse make up of the committee, even through turnover.

Reached Thursday afternoon, Benjamin said he has heard concerns that the city is falling short of allocating the money to “the full breadth and depth” of cultural organizations.

“So I asked the H-tax committee ... to work with Dr. Dozier, who is not only a diversity leader, but a neighborhood leader ... to help us do better,” the mayor said.

Council on July 15 gave the committee the extra $325,000, raising the total of meal-tax revenue the panel screened this year to almost $2.7 million – a record amount for the members to evaluate from among 89 applicants.

Among the largest allotments from the extra money were:

•  $35,000 more to the Five Points Association to promote a range of events in that entertainment district
•  $25,000 more to each to City Center Partnership, Columbia City Ballet and Columbia Classical Ballet
•  $15,000 more each to Ann Brodie’s Carolina Ballet and the Indie Grits Film Festival
•  $11,000 more the Columbia HipHop Family Day
•  $10,000 more each to the Main Street Latin Festival, the sports promotion arm of the Greater Columbia Convention Center, the 701 Center for Contemporary Art and the Celebrate Freedom Festival

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