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'Emergence' vacant window art project stirs controversy
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'Emergence' vacant window art project stirs controversy

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The City of Flagstaff is gauging interest for a public art project designed to solicit local artists to decorate the windows of vacant storefronts.

The project, titled “Emergence,” was met with criticism when it was announced on the Flagstaff City Government Facebook page on New Year's Eve. Many commenters called into question the project’s use of tax funds and necessity as the city faces issues related to the ongoing pandemic.

Kevin McCoy, Flagstaff business owner and lifelong resident of northern Arizona, said the project is "insulting" to establishments that have had to close in recent months.

“These people lost everything and now they want to hide the evidence with pretty paintings,” McCoy said. “That’s pretty disrespectful to me.”

City officials had considered this type of project prior to COVID-19 restrictions, according to Eliza Kretzmann, beautification, arts and sciences manager. Recent business closures, however, made the project more relevant to the department.

Just before the adjournment of Tuesday’s Flagstaff City Council meeting, Vice Mayor Becky Daggett briefly addressed the controversy surrounding the Facebook post from Thursday, Dec. 31.

“I would just like to encourage staff to share as much information as you can, because there seems to be a great deal of interest concerning what the city is doing with this project,” Daggett said.

Following Daggett’s comments, Kretzmann shared a brief summary of the project with Council. Because the topic was not on the meeting’s agenda, Council did not discuss the matter at length.

“We are happy to prepare a summary for city council or bring this back as an official item if desired,” Kretzmann said.

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So far, the project has garnered no interest from Flagstaff business and property owners, Kretzmann said. Although, she added that the project was recently presented at “Coffee Klatch,” a monthly meetup with business owners to discuss tourism -- which may generate interest. Multiple local artists have already reached out to project organizers.

The pilot project is funded by the Bed, Board and Beverage (BBB) tax and is supported by the city’s Beautification and Public Art Commission. In total the project is expected to cost under $10,000.

The BBB tax is a 2% local transaction privilege tax (TPT) levy on the gross revenues generated from hotels, motels, campgrounds, bars and restaurants. It was approved by Flagstaff voters to fund tourism, beautification, economic development and parks and recreation.

A ballot measure in the 2010 general election extended the BBB tax at the present rate for 15 years, according to the report.

“I just want to stress that this project is being done with BBB taxes and not with general fund taxes. I think it’s important to note that this funding is dedicated for this type of thing,” Councilmember Jim McCarthy said.

McCoy said he understands there are funds allocated for city programs such as art projects and that while he "does not necessarily disagree” with this type of tax fund in all instances, he "does not like it.”

“Sure there’s a lot of important projects our city needs done, whether infrastructure, public education or law enforcement, and to me personally [these projects] would seem more important than putting up art in windows,” McCoy said.

Kretzmann told councilmembers it appears the program is being mistaken for an economic development project instead of a public art project, adding that it does, however, have aspects of economic development.

In an interview, Kretzmann addressed a concern that the art pieces would prevent prospective tenants from adequately seeing the interior of the vacant space. To remedy this, commissioned art must have an aspect of permeability to it.

“From a downtown management perspective, connecting business owners with artists is a good thing,” Terry Madeksza, executive director of the Flagstaff Downtown Business Alliance, said. “It also makes the area much more appealing to pedestrians.”

“This is a chance to add some vibrancy to these areas while promoting local projects,” Kretzmann said.

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