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Cowtown supporters object to proposed budget cut at Tuesday’s hearing

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, August 7, 2012, at 12:02 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, August 23, 2013, at 4:55 p.m.

A testy debate over the funding of Old Cowtown Museum became a major topic in Tuesday’s city budget hearing.

In his budget remarks, City Manager Robert Layton ratcheted down the cut he wants to make to Cowtown’s 2013 proposed budget to about $80,000. That’s down from an earlier estimated cut of $100,000, which would have been about 15 percent of the museum’s operating budget.

But Layton and City Council members, confronted with strong objections to the cuts from the Cowtown board, stood firm, saying the museum is the only one of five city arts and cultural institutions that requires supplemental funding from the city’s general fund to pay its bills — $208,258 in 2012, a figure estimated to drop to $143,186 in 2013.

And Cowtown supporters absorbed a mild rebuke from the council bench to step up what has been a relatively small fundraising effort that “easily” should bridge that $80,000 cut, Vice Mayor Janet Miller said.

“This isn’t about trying to weaken Cowtown,” Layton told the council. “We’re trying to change our thought processes. This isn’t about an incremental decrease in expenses or an increase in revenues. It’s how can we turn the corner and make this a more robust museum and facility.”

Layton talked at length about “changing the business model” at Cowtown, proposing a joint city/museum board study to model Cowtown after Heritage Hill State Park in Wisconsin and Living History Farms in Iowa. The two museums have limited public sector support; both rely on admissions and a vibrant fundraising effort for financial support.

But numerous Cowtown backers took issue with the proposed cuts, some angrily.

David Crockett, president of Historical Cowtown Inc., called the cuts “unfair” to an already overtaxed staff. Crockett said the city has already cut Cowtown severely, slicing its budget by 35 percent, its full-time staff from 12 to seven and its part-time staff from 18 to 10.

“Despite these reductions, due to the efforts of director David Flask and his staff, they have increased attendance by 61 percent and earned income by 20 percent,” Crockett said. “Now, we have a proposal to cut another substantial sum from the budget. Even $80,000 will be a devastating blow to this reduced staff that’s trying to do so much.

“It’s unfair to place all of the burden of this financial sacrifice on just one of your … institutions. Cowtown is a huge asset for this community.”

Former council member Sharon Fearey, representing the Wichita Arts Council, sided with Crockett, calling for the council to spread the cutbacks among the city’s five major arts and cultural sites. In addition to Cowtown, the others are the Wichita Art Museum, Botanica, the Mid-America All-Indian Center and the Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum.

“To single out one museum for this kind of budget cut smacks of discrimination from city administration,” Fearey said. “The overriding question of the arts council becomes what the city’s policy is for the funding of Tier 1 museums, or is there one?

“We are concerned the policy is leaving these decisions to city staff with the rubber stamp of the City Council.”

Vice Mayor Miller, though, sent a clear message to the Cowtown board: They can and should upgrade their private fundraising efforts.

Crockett said Cowtown raises between $45,000 and $50,000 a year.

“I think one of the things we’ve been looking at for the last several years is helping and encouraging the institutions to work on their private side fundraising … ,” Miller said. “Unless I’m mistaken, I haven’t seen that (from Cowtown) over the last six years.”

Hyatt is profitable

Layton also announced Tuesday that the city-owned Hyatt Regency hotel is making more money than expected, so much so that a consultant, PKF, thinks the operation can return $250,000 annually to the city while generating enough cash to handle ongoing maintenance.

“This is good news for the residents of Wichita; because of the hard work of the Hyatt, they are generating a quarter-million dollars in annual help to reduce property taxes,” Layton said.

The city’s management deal with Hyatt Hotels provides a management fee equal to 3 percent of gross revenue plus 15 percent of adjusted profit. Remaining profits have been retained in an account to replace furniture, fixtures and equipment.

Layton said the Hyatt has generated $21.1 million in economic benefit for the city since 2002, including $9.8 million in sales taxes, $6 million in property taxes, $4.8 million in guest taxes and $500,000 in rent payments.

The city’s 2013 budget is scheduled for formal approval Aug. 14, following more public comments.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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