SITKA_NOV

Alaska Arts Southeast will transform a closed National Historic Landmark college into a multidimensional arts campus, bringing new life to rural Southeast Alaska. ArtPlace spoke with Roger Schmidt, director of the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, about the new initiative:

ARTPLACE: Have you gained any political traction with your efforts? If so, with whom and how did you do it?

SCHMIDT: In January 2011, we received the historic Sheldon Jackson Campus after it had been boarded up for four years. We simultaneously received a strong response from the mayor and other City officials that they were not going to help us resurrect it. We asked for a resolution of support from our City Assembly. At the time, we had three Assembly members who were strongly in support of the Fine Arts Camp taking over the old campus, three against and one undecided. We had to sit for over two hours of Assembly members arguing over the resolution until our opposition was certain the language of the resolution offered nothing in support beyond “good wishes.” After that meeting we knew we had our work cut out to win the City and community over in the importance of revitalizing the campus.

The first big issue that came against us from the City was property tax. When the college closed, the City revoked its property tax exemption, resulting in the former college trustees having to pay the City over $100,000. We accepted the campus with assurances that the property would be exempt, but later discovered that this would not be the case without the backing of at least four votes on the Assembly. To win this vote, we began a media campaign celebrating the volunteer work of the community, and the educational and community nature of our endeavor. We began to give weekly tours to community members and to hold weekend ‘volunteer work parties.’

It was important to make sure that our potential swing vote on the Assembly received news of our progress. Our board president began to meet regularly with this individual to give him updates and tours of the community’s volunteer work. After several months, when the issue was to be voted on by the Assembly, we knew we could count on the four needed votes. Ultimately, six of the seven Assembly members voted in support of us not paying property taxes.

This month, our community voted in a new mayor who has been outspoken in her support of our project and how it benefits our community. Six out of seven current Assembly members are strong supporters. The Sheldon Jackson revitalization efforts are now boosted not only by the community, but also the political backing of that community, allowing us greater confidence in our way forward. In addition to our focus on local politics, we have also been working hard to build our relationships our representatives at the state and national level by sharing our story and inviting representatives to visit our campus.

PHOTO: State Representative Sharon Cissna pitches in on the Campus for 100-Volunteer day.

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