Tony Sasso works two jobs in his hometown of Cocoa Beach so that he and his wife can do things like take vacations to Key West.
For the past 15 years, the Sassos consider themselves the type of tourists that the island should focus more of its welcoming efforts, and tax dollars, on: arts connoisseurs who spend more time dining, shopping and lodging than a Duval Street crawler or Carnival day-tripper.
"We buy art, I know every gallery in this town like the back of my hand," Sasso, 60, told a crowd Monday night at The Studios of Key West. "I spend a lot more money than someone from a cruise ship."
Preacher Tony Sasso, meet the choir.
This crowd loved it, having gathered in Old Town for the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys' "Future Forum on the Arts," a public meeting led by a panel featuring City Commissioner Teri Johnston, Studios board chairwoman Rosi Ware, poet Arlo Haskell, activist Jon Allen, Art in Public Places board Chairman Michael Shields; and Liz Young, executive director of the Florida Keys Council of the Arts.
The mood was loose, and the panelists united in their cause. But the underlying theme was to involve government, including tax revenue, into supporting the arts as a product and a cultural asset.
Shields said the room, filled with artists and people who buy art, along with civic leaders such as School Board member Robin Smith-Martin, former County Mayor Shirley Freeman, and Womankind Executive Director Kim Romano.
"There's no shortage of creativity," Shields said. "What we need is leadership, economic investment and commitment."
Panelists also got down to the bottom line, advocating to use more Key West tax dollars to promote the arts.
"Santa Fe has one-penny of the bed tax going directly to culture," said Allen. "If we had that in the Keys, that would generate almost $8 million a year for culture. Denver has a one-quarter-cent sales tax -- on all sales."
Allen urged the crowd of about 60 to get involved, whether they were accountants or artists.
"Get on the board of something," Allen said, smiling. "Artists aren't always the best people in the world doing business, that's why we love them."
Shields went from commissioner to commissioner about three years ago to present the financial facts about the millions of revenue that the arts supply the Florida Keys, making a lasting impression, according to Johnston.
The City Commission's job is to provide essential services for residents, such as police and fire departments, roads and a sewer system, Johnston said, so it can become a struggle to remember the cultural side of the island.
"We deal with a lot of groups in front of the commission," Johnston said. "Hopefully, we'll be seeing a lot more of you in front of us."
Key West already dedicates tax dollars to its arts organization, Arts in Public Places.
City projects, such as the Truman Waterfront and the renovation of Glynn Archer Elementary School into a City Hall, will supply a 1 percent money stream to Arts in Public Places.
So will the 96-room hotel planned for the City Marina Bight downtown, and new units at Peary Court.
The arts also build friendships and community, Ware said, noting the recent weekend's art festival and the local nonprofit movie theater, Tropic Cinema.
"I've made lots of friends while we're talking about the movies," Ware said.
"This is something that enriches the community. It's not just art for art's sake."