Thursday, June 28, 2007

Michael Brydon: The Theory

In 2003, the City of Penticton was working hard to acquire funding for a new $30M events centre. Imagine if, at that time, civic leaders hatched a theory that involved knocking down Memorial Arena before any money for the new events centre had been raised. According to the theory, the federal and provincial governments would notice the resulting hole in the ground and make good on their responsibility to provide Penticton with a state-of-the-art hockey arena. People in the community might have objected that the theory was just that—a theory. They might have pointed to the risk of ending up with no facility and the on-going community benefits of keeping the old Memorial Arena, event after the events centre became a reality.

But imagine if proponents of the theory dismissed such concerns as negativity and sentimentalism for an obsolete and architecturally-unappealing structure. They could trot out a cost-benefit analysis that—if the salary costs of a planner in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department was creatively allocated—showed the operation costs of Memorial Arena to be very high. They could also argue (in clear contradiction of reports by city staff and well-known facts) that McLaren Arena was available most evenings for Penticton Vees hockey games and would be adequate until 2005 (2006 at the very latest), when the new events centre would surely be completed. They could congratulate themselves for their wisdom and financial prudence.

I am pretty sure that this theory applied to Memorial Arena in 2003 would have been laughed out of existence. But some proponents of a new performing arts facility, including Mayor Kimberley and Councilor McIvor, are true believers in a similar theory. They believe that, by knocking down our old 700-seat auditorium, they can increase the probability that the federal and provincial governments will fund two-thirds of a new 700-seat auditorium. Sounds promising, but there are some problems: First, the old auditorium does not need to be knocked down before funding is in place for a new performing arts facility. The buildings will not occupy the same piece of land and the $1.5M required to convert the old gym and auditorium is a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of a new $30M (pre-overrun estimate) facility. Second, deliberately orchestrating our own facilities deficit puts local taxpayers on the hook for at least a third of the cost of the new facility. Perhaps the referendum for borrowing at least $10M should be held before the old auditorium is paved over. Third, the theory ignores the fact that senior levels of government have many responsibilities and interest (such as health care, greenhouse gas reduction, land claims, education, Olympics, wars, and so on) and that external funding for the new performing arts facility remains speculative. Finally, the theory ignores the potential community benefits of keeping the gym and the auditorium, even if a new facility it built.

Members of SONG ( believe—and have always believed—that a new performing arts facility would benefit the city, especially if most of the funding is external. However, we also believe that the city has an unprecedented opportunity to acquire the Pen-Hi gym and auditorium at a bargain. Unfortunately, many city leaders are willing to forego the bargain in favor of theory—a theory that might not be nearly as clever as they imagine.

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