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All eyes on Tacoma as it rolls out Washington's first sales tax for cultural programs

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
A 2013 file photo of Tacoma's Chihuly Bridge of Glass.

Voters in this fall's election made Tacoma the first city in Washington state to say yes to an expansion of arts and culture programs funded by a new sales tax.

More than 67 percent of Tacoma voters approved the measure, a year after voters in King County rejected a similar idea.

That means leaders across the state will be watching Tacoma as the city's leaders unroll the "Tacoma Creates" program in 2019. 

"We're precedent-setting, here," said Amy McBride, the city's arts administrator. "That does give us leeway to really build the program in a way that works best for our community." 

McBride said she plans to spend much of 2019 getting the program off the ground, and doesn't expect it to be in full swing until 2020.

Tacoma Creates is designed to make it easier for people to access arts and cultural institutions like museums and theaters, as well as bring art projects into under-served communities. 

It's permitted by a 2015 state law allowing cities and counties to charge a one-tenth of one percent sales tax to fund a "cultural access program." 

Tacoma begins collecting the sales tax April 1. 

City Council members will likely appoint an advisory board in the New Year that will approve or reject proposals by cultural organizations seeking a slice of the estimated $5 million in annual revenue, McBride said. 

Nonprofit organizations may ask for money for public art exhibitions, local performances, reduced entry fees, or marketing campaigns to increase awareness of their institutions. Some of the money also is expected to be set aside to improve transportation to cultural centers. 

McBride said she expects some of the proposals to focus on serving schoolchildren, especially during the summer and after-school hours. 

She said she's modeling Tacoma Creates on Denver's publicly funded arts program, and plans to reach out to other cities as well. 

"Now that it's real, it's getting down to brass tacks about what is really needed, where the most important places to start and focus efforts are," she said. 

Tacoma officials plan to meet with residents in the New Year to gather ideas for how best to spend the sales tax revenue. The first of those meetings is Jan. 23 at 6 p.m. at Tacoma's Theatre on the Square. 

McBride said 2019 is set to be the "ramp-up phase."

"I want to be able to say, 'We're going to do A, B, C, and D,'" she said, "but we can't until we have some more meaningful conversations in the community." 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.