Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Michael Brydon: Delegating responsiblity to bulldozer drivers

The following was printed as a letter to the editor in the 06 March 2007 edition of the Penticton Herald:

What if, as Dodi Morrison asks in a recent column, Penticton cannot afford a new performing arts center? What if the $17M cost overrun for the South Okanagan Event Centre and increased spending for critical infrastructure (water, sewers) mean that the City of Penticton is unable to come up with its one-third share of a new $25M facility (even if the provincial and federal governments agree to foot the rest of the bill)? The decision for the local performing arts community then becomes whether to throw its support behind efforts to save the Pen-Hi auditorium or risk being left with no facility (other than the much-maligned Cleland Theatre). Little suspension of disbelief is required to imagine a three-act tragedy in which City Hall continues to make encouraging noises about a new performing arts centre, local arts groups stand by as bulldozers flatten the Pen-Hi auditorium, and, for one reason or another, City Hall’s vague commitment to a new facility never materializes in its capital budgets. Given the near certainty of continued pressure on the city’s financial resources, the performing arts community might want to consider hanging on to the Pen-Hi auditorium as a hedge against being left empty handed.

As some have already pointed out, a commitment to save the auditorium then raises the issue of Pen-Hi’s north gym. A good chunk of the estimated cost of converting the auditorium to a community facility arises from the need to sever its heating, water, and other services from the centralized facilities of the soon-to-be demolished school. Since the auditorium and gym are connected, the additional cost of including the gym in the conversion would be relatively small. The two buildings can thus be thought of as a package deal. Faced with the possibility of a bargain, the question is whether the auditorium and gym would create enough value in the community to justify the city’s costs of acquisition and conversion.

In the absence of rock-solid commitments by both city and provincial governments to a new performing arts facility, the community value of the Pen-Hi auditorium is bound to be high. The case for the gym, however, is less clear. Some in the community have a sentimental attachment to the gym. Others are less sentimental but think it is short-sighted and foolish to knock over a perfectly good building to make room for a parking lot, especially given the replacement cost of the building in question. The problem is that, to this point, no strong, unified voice in favor of saving the gym has emerged. The rebuilt Pen-Hi will include a massive new gym, so the school district cannot be expected to champion anything beyond its educational mandate. And additional gym space—bargain or no bargain—does not currently rank high on the City’s lists of capital spending priorities. However, we should recognize that fragmented support within the community is not the same as no support. Many small, diverse groups could benefit from community ownership of the gym. Perhaps, for example, adult basketball leagues would return to Penticton if more gym time was available in the evenings. And what about floor hockey, badminton, archery, martial arts, gymnastics, dance, and so on? It may be that these many small groups are, in aggregate, large enough to get the attention of local politicians.

The risk is that we might never find out. City Hall appears to have little time or stomach for the inter-jurisdictional negotiations required to bring an auditorium/gym proposal forward for a full public dialog. This is troubling since artistic and recreational facilities involve subtle tradeoffs between hard, tangible costs and soft, intangible benefits. It is not clear how a high-quality decision can be made without the full involvement of the community. In the worst case, the deadline for action on the gym will pass without careful and open consideration of its potential. All the important decisions will then be made by the driver of a bulldozer.

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