Norwich candidates express doubts about public funding for arts

Norwich — The final forum for mayoral and City Council candidates Wednesday started with a complaint over a late time change to accommodate Republican candidates appearing on a local cable access TV show earlier.

Petitioning mayoral candidate Jon Oldfield arrived at the Norwich Arts Center for the original 6:30 p.m. scheduled start time to learn it had been changed to an hour later. He initially said he would leave, but ended up staying for the forum, which focused on art, culture and heritage.

Republican mayoral candidate Peter Nystrom told the 35 people in the audience that Republican candidates had a previous commitment scheduled long before the arts forum was planned. Carrie Dyer, chairwoman of Norwich Creates, the sponsoring organization, apologized for the start time confusion.

Four of the five mayoral candidates and nine of the 17 council candidates participated, with petitioning candidate Joseph Radecki Jr. absent.

The candidates may have disappointed arts advocates in the audience at the Donald Oat Theater when asked if they would support restoring a city tourism office to help promote local events and to have the city take a role in promoting those events.

None of the four mayoral candidates supports hiring a city-funded tourism director. Democratic mayoral candidate Derell Wilson said he would support creation of a volunteer arts commission to help coordinate such events. Nystrom said he would only support seeking grants to fund the position. Oldfield also said he would seek to use volunteers to promote the arts, but would not hire a staff person.

Libertarian mayoral candidate William Russell answered the question as he did with most others Wednesday: public funding of the arts, even with grants, is not the function of government. Russell said Libertarians believe in minimal government funding for services such as police and fire coverage, and not for ancillary programs.

“This is one of the things government should not be doing,” he said. But he said he would support businesses and volunteers organizing and funding arts and cultural events and facilities.

All four mayoral candidates also couldn’t support a line item in the city budget to support arts organizations and events. The city eliminated stipends for several longtime arts organizations when the recession hit several years ago.

Oldfield said Norwich needs a major attraction downtown and in Norwich Harbor. He has been exploring the possibility of bringing the Amistad — the replica of a ship made famous by an 1841 mutiny by captured Africans — to homeport in Norwich Harbor. Oldfield said that would divert some of the casino traffic in the region to Norwich.

When the City Council candidates got their shot at the questions, many had the same answers. Tight city budgets would prevent direct funding of arts and culture programs, but all participating candidates welcomed efforts to better promote the arts.

Republican candidate Rob Dempsky said he mostly agreed with Russell, but said state and federal grant money for arts already has been allocated, and Norwich should pursue those funds.

Democratic council candidate Joseph DeLucia said the city could give the job of promoting and coordinating arts and cultural events to the Norwich Community Development Corp. as part of its funding by the city.

“Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough money in the pot to support everybody’s needs,” incumbent Republican candidate Joanne Philbrick said. She said the city already has a number of “mini” arts offices throughout the city, the various historical museums, Slater Museum and the Norwich visitors center on the Norwichtown Green, staffed by volunteers from the Norwich Historical Society.

Democratic council candidate Zato Kadambaya, a high school teacher, used the question of support for the arts to push his main goal of increasing city support for schools. “Where does interest in art start? In school,” he said. “With the budget cuts, what’s first to get cut? Arts.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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