Friday, December 7, 2007

Michael Brydon: Time to reassess?

The following was submitted as a letter to the Herald:

I am often asked what became of the Save Our North Gym movement. Recall that just over six months ago, Penticton city council—aided and abetted by the board of School District 67—rejected the SONG proposal to acquire the Pen-Hi north gym and auditorium for community use. Accordingly, the two buildings will be demolished and replaced with a parking lot in the spring of 2008. Shortly following council’s decision, six former mayors of Penticton (including a former provincial cabinet minister) assembled to voice the opinion that the city had made a mistake in its decision. However, rather than reassess, council seemed content to dismiss the advice and argue that the former mayors did not have “the full facts”. This was a curious rebuttal given that several of the most important facts presented by council members in their June 4th deliberations on the proposal are verifiably wrong. For example, a primary justification offered by council for not acquiring the gym was the assertion that the new-and-improved Pen-Hi gym (currently under construction) will be available during cold winter evenings for adult recreational uses, such as community volleyball, basketball, archery and badminton. Mayor Kimberley was especially adamant on this point. However, a quick glance at the high school gym schedules shows that Pen-Hi and Maggie student teams not only monopolize their own gyms during most of the academic year, but also make liberal use of the adjacent middle school gyms. Curiously, the city’s Director of Special Projects made precisely this point during his presentation to council, noting that “the high schools are normally fully used—they are tough to get in to”. But for some reason, this seemed not to register.

As for the auditorium, the primary justification for knocking it down was the assertion that the old 700 seat facility would soon be made obsolete by the proposed $30M, 700 seat South Okanagan Performing Arts Centre (as distinct from the South Okanagan Events Centre, which is currently under construction at Queen’s Park). There was even a lively debate during the June 4th deliberations about whether the new performing arts facility would be completed in 24 or 36 months. As a Herald editorial noted at the time, these estimates seemed a tad optimistic. With every passing month, they seem increasingly delusional. The city granted the Penticton and District Performing Arts Facilities Society a $2.5M parcel of land along Ellis Street in July to kick-start the fundraising for the project. However, in the same breath, the city publicly declined to contribute further to the facility’s capital budget. Thus, in the first six months of a 36-month project, the only major funding announcement that I am aware of has been a negative one. Now let’s be clear and emphatic: The point here is not to criticize those who are volunteering their time to raise $30M and make the new performing arts facility a reality. Many in the community recognize the challenges involved in an undertaking of this scale and applaud those doing the heavy lifting. Instead, the point here is to question the judgment of politicians who act as if the new facility were a done deal. The point is to inquire about the legitimacy of a multi-million dollar decision made on the basis of misapprehended facts and absurdly overconfident assessments of highly uncertain events.

So, with only a few months remaining before bulldozers flatten two valuable buildings, it seems like a good time to ask some questions: What if the six former mayors were right and our current council made a bad decision? What if the (now) 18-30-month window to find money for and build a new $30M performing arts facility seems less realistic than it did six months ago? Should we expect the members of council to reassess their positions? And, if they do reassess, should we expect them to do so while the Pen-Hi buildings are still standing?

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