Does Walnut Creek’s emphasis on the arts and recreation help or hurt its fiscal health?

City Manager Gary Pokorny was blunt in the latest issue of the Walnut Creek’s newsletter The Nutshell: “The city is facing a $3.5 million shortfall in 2009-10 and shortfall in 2009-10 and worse in later years. years. We must make difficult spending cuts…” He added that the major economic downturn has hurt auto sales, housing values, employment, and, as a result, city revenues. “The unfortunate reality is that the City is simply no longer able to do ‘business as usual.’ “

As this May/June issue of Nutshell hit our mailboxes, and the city’s website, the city announced a series of workshops to gain public input on how the city should address its financial challenges in the years to come. They will be held May 11, 16, and 18.

Meanwhile, fellow Walnut Creek blogger, The DUBC, in an April 8 article, showed how Walnut Creek spends a larger percentage of its budget on arts and recreation services than some other East Bay cities and less on police services. Walnut Creek spends about 21 percent of its budget on arts, recreation, and community services, and 33 percent on police services. This story by the DUBC, a blogger who does a much better job of following Walnut Creek’s budget issues than I do, generated lots of good debate and information. I suggest you check it out.

The story was comparing Walnut Creek’s ratio of arts and recreation to police services spending to towns like Concord, Antioch, Pittsburg, and Richmond. From some poking around myself, I found that Walnut Creek’s ratio is similar to local cities like San Ramon, Pleasanton, and Danville.

It would be great if, as one anonymous Walnut Creek police officer commented, that the city could afford to put 15 more officers on the street. According to this officer, Chief Joel H. Bryden, nine months on the job, has said that these 15 more cops would make Walnut Creek a much safer place. But, alas, the city can’t.

I am sure there are some who think that Walnut Creek is a perfectly safe city and that maybe the police have so little to do they can launch a jaywalking sting on Las Lomas students (as I reported in a recent story).

I check out the Walnut Creek police log from time to time. While they are not regularly racing out to reports or robberies, shootings, or homicides, like their fellow officers in Richmond, I see that the officers keep themselves busy with calls coming into the department every few minutes.

In his response to comments, the DUBC says that by showing how the city spends its money, “We are not saying fund this area and not that one. We love Open Space, the arts, well maintained streets and all the other things the city provides. Hopefully these numbers help people understand where the city currently spends money so they can express their opinions, good or bad, on the direction we are going.”

I happen to be a fan of Walnut Creek’s arts and recreation programs. My son will attend a couple sessions of the city-run sports camps this summer, and I learned this week, at a meeting for parents of incoming Walnut Creek Intermediate School students, that the city coordinates after-school sports programs at this school and at Foothill Middle School. The city employs the coaches, officials and scorekeepers for basketball, soccer, flag football, softball, volleyball, golf and track.

As for Walnut Creek’s arts programs, Walnut Creek’s Civic Arts Education program is reportedly one of the oldest and most admired in the state.

And most important of all, in these tough economic times, the economic benefits of the city having a thriving arts and culture scene have been well documented.

Walnut Creek has twice participated in an Arts and Economic Prosperity study carried out by Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit in promoting arts programs.

The latest study, released in 2007, showed the city’s nonprofit arts and cultural organizations “are a significant industry in the city—one that generates $56.2 million in local economic activity. This spending–$18.6 million by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and an additional $37.6 million in event-related spending by their audiences—supports 1,482 full-time equivalent jobs, generates $26.6 million in household income to local residents, and delivers $5.8 million in local and state government revenue.”

I also know people who are involved in the Diablo Regional Arts Association. This is the nonprofit group that raises money for theater, dance, music, and visual arts programs put on at the Lesher Center for the Arts. Some of the biggest movers and shakers in business, in Walnut Creek and in nearby towns, are members or are on the board of the DRAA. Major sponsors or partners of the DRAA include oil giant Chevron Corp., Wells Fargo Bank, and Target. I recently heard the DRAA’s board president, Gary Fisher, Chevron’s general manager of corporate public policy, tell a group of area business leaders that supporting arts is good for their own bottom line.

Walnut Creek’s thriving arts scene makes it a desirable place for a business to locate, and a desirable place for its employees to work and live (if they can afford it, but that’s a whole other issue that businesses have to struggle with).

Walnut Creek’s downtown wouldn’t be the retail, dining, and entertainment hub that it is—even in this tough economy—without the Lesher Center. Or, so I’ve been told time and time again by my artsy friends: Broadway Plaza bookending one end of the downtown’s core; the Lesher Center, which opened 19 years ago, bookending the other.

Oh, and, from what I’ve further been told, Center Repertory Company, the in-house theater company at the Lesher Center, has been breaking records for attendance the last two years. Seats are 90 percent filled on most performance nights, compared with 60 percent a couple years ago. Meanwhile, tomorrow’s performance by the Walnut Creek-based California Symphony at the Lesher Center is sold out.

So, even in these tough economic times, people are willing to shell out $$$ for movies and quality entertainment.

Actually, that was true in the Depression. Hollywood raked it in, offering people an escape from the grim daily headlines of job losses, stock market dives, and breadlines. These days, we want escape from the grim daily headlines of job losses, stock market dives, swine flu, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, nuclear threats from Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, and debates over whether our nation engaged in torture.

11 thoughts on “Does Walnut Creek’s emphasis on the arts and recreation help or hurt its fiscal health?

  1. So you say that WC spends about the same percentage on arts and recreation as Pleasanton, Danville or San Ramon, while cities such as Richmond, Concord or Antioch spend less on arts and recreation but more on services i.e. Police. Sounds great we should really try to model WC more like Richmond, or Concord or Antioch and less than Pleasanton or Danville or San Ramon.


  2. Center Rep. Co. may be running at 90% and this performance by the Caly Cymphony may be sold out but that doesn’t mean that these and others arts group are fat and happy.

    In the best of economic times, local groups do not pay for their performances and operating expenses with ticket sales alone. They depend on volunteers, private and corporate contributions, government and private grants etc. to keep themselves in business.

    The facts are there, a lively arts program brings in lots of $$$ to our city. And, don’t ever think that a huge part of the performing expenses are paid to the city in fees for ticketing an venue costs.

    Putting extra butts in the seats in recent years at the Repional Center just could be due to our tought economic times. People are discovering that they don’t have to go into San Francisco for and expensive dinner and show. They can find very wonderful entertainment right in their own backyards.


  3. Pretty ironic that the article referenced in the Nutshell ran alongside a picture of the library construction. According to the city website, the library will consume $34 million in the 2008-2010 capital budget.


  4. Sharp observation Jojo Potato.

    Problem is, no one at City Hall is smart enough to see the irony of the placement of the articles! Do you suppose that could be a major part of our current economic crisis in Walnut Creek?


  5. Any money made in taxes for the city from the arts is more than offset by the 11 million or so spent every year from the general fund to keep these programs (including the RCA) afloat. Not only are they not money makers they REQUIRE city money to run at all. This doesn’t account for the millions spent on the library or hundreds of thousands going to groups like the Dowmtown Business Association and others.

    And Walnut Creek has way more crime than Danville, Pleasanton or San Ramon. The idea should be to prevant becoming an Antioch or a Concord. Once we reach that point all the Arts and Rec programs in the world won’t bring people here to shop, dine or see plays. I’m speaking as a business owner(outside of the downtown area) and resident who sees our spending priorities going in the wrong direction. Keep digging Soccer Mom.


  6. I have no complaint with arts and rec programs, they are wonderful public programs used by many tax paying citizens for the enhancement of the community. I do have complaints with the the citys priority. In economic times such as these, government needs to assure that the core and essential services are maintained. Public safety, immediate medical attention and education are those core services.
    After we have enough police, firefighters, paramedics and teachers, we should fund all the rest of the city programs to the fullest. My disagreement with city leaders is that they are forcing police and other essential services to compete with non essential services for scarce public funds. Whether we have docents, opera or a library will not make much difference if we feel unsafe in our community. We need to re-examine our priorities and ensure the core priorities are not competing with the frills for the same dollar on an “across the board” situation.


  7. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. People live in Walnut Creek because it’s a safe place to be. Everything else pales in comparison. When the chips are down, it’s a no brainer….safety first, the rest is window dressing.


  8. To compare any spending ratios to the surrounding areas is ludicrous. None of these cities are what I would like to model my hometown after.

    Give me a some real comparisons and don’t muddle is with what the police chief says. Of course he will want to add more officers. Even extremely marginal improvements (no matter the costs) will result in a bonus for him.


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