City commission moves forward on Cultural Arts Center


The Gainesville City Commission, sitting as the General Policy Committee on January 13, moved forward with a proposal from Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker to create a Cultural Arts Center.

The Policy Research Department presented research on the association between Cultural Arts Centers (CACs) and youth violence/poverty. CACs are community centers with programs and events to cultivate arts education and cultural connections, with the primary mission of educating the community and cultivating artistic skills. According to Policy Research Fellow Kaylinn Escobar, “the research between arts programming and youth violence suggests a decrease in repeat offenses and increase in prosocial behavior… There are positive trends between arts engagement and socio-emotional skills but no causal relationship between the two. However, CACs’ arts programming can reduce factors that elevate risks for youth violence.”

She continued, “There is little research on the relationship between cultural arts programming and a decrease in poverty. However, there is evidence of arts engagement showing positive outcomes on school grades, test scores, and high school graduation rates… A limitation of the association between arts programming and youth violence and poverty is a lack of quality research studies focused on the precise effects arts programming has on youth violence and poverty. Small sample sizes, a high attrition rate, and data collection mismanagement are common limitations in academic studies on this topic. Note that just because the research conducted has not had sufficient data to support one, a causal relationship between arts programming and youth violence may still exist.”

Escobar said that of the 699 juvenile arrests made in 2019-2020 in Alachua County, 42% were ages 15-16, 28% were ages 17+, 24% were 13-24, and 5% were 5-12. 

“They don’t have anywhere to go. They don’t have anything to do.” – Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker

Duncan-Walker said this has been an important issue for her for quite some time, “born out of watching my classmates bury their sons… This issue is urgent… the situation has gotten worse… There is no singular solution.” She said that in speaking to parents and youth, she kept getting the same response: “They don’t have anywhere to go. They don’t have anything to do.” She said they told her they wanted mentoring, after-school programs, sports, mental health counseling, arts activities, and jobs. She said she began to work collaboratively with Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon; Santa Fe College President Dr. Paul Broadie; Dr. Osubi Craig of UF’s Center for Arts, Migration, and Entrepreneurship; Dionne Champion of UF’s SPARC352 initiative; and Alana Jackson from UF’s Arts in Medicine Program. She said the group coalesced around the idea of bringing a cultural arts hub to east Gainesville. 

Simon told the commissioners that the Duval Early Learning Center was vacant this year until some nonprofits began running programs there. She said there are currently “more schools than students” on the east side of town, “and I think there’s opportunities [for] using our schools… as community centers.”

Duncan-Walker said that moving forward would likely entail a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Alachua County School Board and SPARC352; SPARC352 had planned to go into Fire Station #1, “but Fire Station #1 is not ready, but Duval is.” She asked for questions from the other commissioners before making her motion.

“3 million dollars”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said it was hard to know what to discuss without knowing how much money she wanted, and Duncan-Walker replied, “3 million dollars” for operations and any needed physical improvements. She also wanted a working group of City staff. She said the money “is a set-aside… so that staff and our partners can assess this entire thing and say, ‘This is what you need.’… What we realize is, we have to start somewhere, and it’s going to take some dollars to do that. We decided that the gun violence issue was… the issue of the moment, particularly in east Gainesville, and this was the way that we wanted to go about addressing it.”

Commissioner Harvey Ward said SPARC352 is a great idea – “it’s just a question of where it gets put… A thing this brings up is, we need to have a different plan… for the fire station, since that didn’t go anywhere with SPARC352.”

Desmon-Walker said she thinks SPARC352 would still want to operate out of that space but have satellite programs. Ward said they had already planned to spend $2.5-4 million to retrofit the fire station, so it made sense to him to use a similar amount of money for buildings that are already functional “and to make other plans for Fire Station #1.” He said that it may not make sense to spend that much in capital dollars on Duval Early Learning Center, a building the City doesn’t own. 

“It almost sounds like… there should be some sort of inter-governmental agency to work on it, rather than trying to figure out which piece of it is the school board’s and which piece is the City’s and yeah, I want to bring the County in, too… And Santa Fe is on board and clearly UF is potentially on board as SPARC352; it’s an ideal Friendship Seven sort of project.” – Commissioner Harvey Ward

Simon said the main needs would be security, lighting, and a new locking system. Ward said he’d already supported a similar amount of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money for the fire station, and “I’m supportive conceptually… It almost sounds like… there should be some sort of inter-governmental agency to work on it, rather than trying to figure out which piece of it is the school board’s and which piece is the City’s and yeah, I want to bring the County in, too… And Santa Fe is on board and clearly UF is potentially on board as SPARC352; it’s an ideal Friendship Seven sort of project.”

Commissioner Reina Saco asked how many hours a day the center would operate, and Duncan-Walker said she would leave that up to the working group. Saco also asked about long-term funding, and Duncan-Walker said funds from the proposed sales tax ballot measure could be used to fund cultural arts spaces. Saco thanked her, saying, “I am excited.”

“I don’t know what the final price tag will be, but to me, the cost of doing nothing is a lot higher.” – Commissioner David Arreola

Commissioner David Arreola said he had been working on an arts center, but it was derailed by the pandemic. He added, “I don’t know what the final price tag will be, but to me, the cost of doing nothing is a lot higher.”

Mayor Lauren Poe said, “I’m always going to support any increased focus on the arts… There is sound science out there on the reduction in violence combined with people’s ability to play an instrument. I’ll pull that up for you. There is a neuroscientist from Northwestern that did a study that definitively proved the positive outcomes of specifically learning an instrument and violence reduction.” [Alachua Chronicle was unable to find this research, although the scientist is likely Dr. Nina Kraus at Northwestern University, whose work is on the effects of music training on language skills and academic performance; Poe was also unable to find the study, telling us that he saw it in a presentation at the Cade Museum several years ago. If he sends it to us, we will link to it here.]

Duncan-Walker asked Poe for help with a motion, and he suggested asking the Interim City Manager to form a group to work with the coalition to flesh out the concept in more detail, then when they’re ready, Dr. Simon would take it to the school board, the County Commission would discuss it, Children’s Trust would discuss it, and the nonprofits’ boards would discuss it for approval. He said the cost would be more clear at that point, so the motion would just be to move it to the next phase. The motion passed unanimously. 

Representatives of the various groups present to the school board

Simon, Champion, Craig, Duncan-Walker, Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry, and County Commissioner Marihelen Wheeler also attended the Alachua County School Board meeting last night. Simon told the board about Duncan-Walker’s idea and Escobar’s presentation, saying they wanted to all work together to create “a place where what was an education facility, like a K-12 setting, an elementary school, could actually become an education facility and a cultural arts center for young, old, everyone, so this could be a place where people could learn through arts, through music, we’re really interested in exploring these ideas.”

Simon also said the Lofton facility area, with the Grow Hub, the GET program, and Duval could provide some synergy with the City, the County, non-profits, and for-profits in the community, including a “co-op type of situation.”

Champion said SPARQ352 is applying for a grant from One Nation One Project that will be awarded to 18 cities: “The underlying idea is that arts have the power to change lives. Cities belong to everyone and health is a fundamental human right, and so… the project is seeking to build an ecology of change towards justice, belonging, and an opportunity for cross-sector partnerships.” The City of Gainesville has committed about $650,000 of its ARPA funds to the project.

Wheeler added that she thought that the combined entities could “figure out a way to do that funding” and that she would encourage the County Commission to give it the “full attention it deserves.”

  • Great! Having City, County & SBAC work together to provide children better access to supervised recreation is wonderful! Having school playgrounds locked & inaccessible to kids evenings & weekends is ineffective use of tax money. This is a great partnership that should be extended.

  • Tread carefully County & SBAC. The city is broke and just hasn’t figured it out yet. You will end up holding the bag.

  • Add this to the heap of government programs that can’t fix bad parenting. The only thing that’s going to fix the problems with the youth of this city is for their parents to undergo a change of heart, mind, values, and lifestyle. What is the Children’s Trust doing with all of the money it gets?

  • Great, yet another place to spend millions every year and play shell games annually with favorite contractors (or claimed contractors). Further indoctrinating kids is another lib-dem dream. Maybe Reichert House will get a piece of this? Job 1 should be getting financial house in order and cutting down GFT from GRU to zero to pay off the billions they’ve run up and added to our utility bills. This is just another boondoggle that will end up a finger pointing disaster in a few years with millions wasted and no one accountable. Forget it.

  • This City Commission just does not get it, just like the ones for the past decade .Now it appears as they have not accepted the reality of the State Audit and are as mindless as they are penniless. In a normal ,responsible city government to remain within your means you establish needs and then wants. The Audit reveals anything but normal. An unsustainable debt burden , denial of their self induced financial distress, and a debt chart that looks like Pikes Peak and is growing daily. Then step out of their lane into the School System that is solvent. On top of that go into the internet business. I hope the newly appointed ” Firing Czar” is just getting warmed up. She has some urgent work to do. By the way, are all of the City Commissioners drug tested under the same rules of the City of Gainesville and GRU employees?

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