Friday, June 8, 2007

Michael Brydon: Comments on the city's decision

The following rant is too long to be sent to the Herald as a letter. I will try, at time permits, to get shorter versions published in the Herald as letters to the editor.

Bismark is often quoted as saying, “Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.” Foolishly ignoring this advice, I just watched a recording of the recent city council meeting in which the city declined to acquire the current Pen-Hi gym and auditorium for community use. Naturally, like many other people in the community who have advocated saving both facilities, I am disappointed by council’s decision. Not so disappointed that I am going to chain myself to a bulldozer on demolition day (though we still may be able to convince Fred Fedorak to do this), but disappointed enough to comment on the decision process captured by the video camera.

The meeting started with a presentation by city staff (Barry Reid, the city’s Director of Special Projects) on the costs and benefits of saving the two facilities. I thought this presentation and accompanying memo were well done, although I have two quibbles. First, for consistency, the operational costs of the auditorium should have been left out of the analysis since any facility—new or old—involves ongoing operation costs. The inclusion of the payroll cost of a new arts coordinator in the estimate was especially misleading since the city will likely fill this position regardless of what happens to the Pen-Hi buildings. A second quibble is that Mr. Reid’s “cost-benefit analysis” actually said nothing about the benefits to the community of saving the auditorium and gym. This is understandable since the benefits of such facilities (culture, fitness, programs for youth) are diffuse and intangible. Instead, Mr. Reid argued that the city could achieve greater benefits on the auditorium side by building a new performing arts center or enlarging the Cleland Theatre and roughly equal benefits on the gym side by streamlining the process by which groups can access the school district’s existing gyms during evenings and weekends.

The latter is certainly an attractive argument given the number of school gyms in this town. But the argument has an important caveat, which Mr. Reid made clear during his presentation of elementary school utilization: “The high school gyms are normally fully used; it is tough to get into them.” Mr. Reid’s “viable alternatives to Pen-Hi” thus depend on the assumption that gyms are fungible—that is, an elementary school gym is completely interchangeable with a high-school gym. As any adult who uses school gyms will tell you though, gym space is emphatically not fungible. Elementary schools are small boxes with poor lighting, low ceilings, and (invariably) dirty floors. More importantly, there is little or no room for spectators or warming-up since the playing area generally occupies the building’s entire footprint. The Pen-Hi gym, in contrast, is a huge space with lots of room for observing, preparing, and socializing. “Make do!” you might be saying. But it is interesting to note by way of comparison that Mayor Kimberley is much more sensitive to subtle differences in amenities when discussing his own interests. In his argument in favor of demolishing the Pen-Hi auditorium, for example, he notes that the facility lacks an adequate space to have a glass of wine during intermission.

Unfortunately, the critical issue of whether the Carmi School gym is really a “viable alternative” to the Pen-Hi gym was never seriously debated during the council meeting. Instead, Mayor Kimberley contradicted Mr. Reid and stated confidently that Pen-Hi’s state of the art new gym will be available in the future for rental by community groups. Dr. Sandra Congram, who was making a presentation at the time, recalled her own experience as a parent and reminded the mayor that high-school teams monopolize their gyms until late in the evening for most of the school year. Mayor Kimberley, unconvinced, returned to the ample availability of high school gym space in his concluding remarks. Why city staff did not interject and correct the mayor is unknown to me.

Mayor Kimberley also used the discussion to express personal opinions about the projected costs of saving the gym and auditorium, which he argued were far too low. I certainly do not dispute the mayor’s right to publicly scoff at detailed cost estimates prepared by Greyback Construction, reviewed by city staff, and verified by an independent quantity surveyor. The mayor has earned his chops in the construction industry and, to date, has consistently been within plus or minus $17M when estimating a project’s true cost. The problem is that he does not apply the same reasoning to the alternatives, specifically the proposed performing arts facility. If the city cannot risk cost increases in a project with a base price of $1.5M, how can it recommend instead taking on a project with a base price of $30M?

Of course many other financial objections were raised by council and there is not enough space to mock them all. But two stand out. Objection #1: The city cannot afford spend $500K of taxpayer’s money to demolish the gym and auditorium at some unspecified point in the future. Suggested solution: School District 67 has already budgeted $500K of taxpayer’s money to demolish the buildings next year. Perhaps a taxpayer-to-taxpayer transfer of some type can be arranged. Objection #2: Fundraising for a new performing arts centre cannot start until land for the facility has been secured. Suggested solution: Assuming this is true, the city should buy the land now and give it to the performing arts society so that they can get started. If the required $30M (or whatever) to build cannot be raised, the land can revert to the city (and sold for a net profit to the city if Councilor Litke’s prediction of negative real interest rates is accurate).

For some reason though, both the city and the performing arts facility society insist that the city cannot buy land for a new facility and take over the gym and the auditorium at the same time. Even though keeping the auditorium provides us with insurance against foreseen and unforeseen problems with building a new facility, and even though $1.5M also buys us a large gymnasium, they argue that the money for the upgrade should be channeled instead to the new performing arts facility. True, the money saved by abandoning the opportunity to retain the Pen-Hi buildings, plus a few bottle drives and perhaps a bake sale, gets us to the 5% mark. But it is not clear where the other $28.5M for the new facility is going to come from.

As both Mayor Kimberley and Councilor McIvor reveal in their closing remarks of the discussion, the overriding objective of their decision is not risk reduction, but risk maximization. Economists call it moral hazard, but we can it the Macbeth strategy: city council convinces SD67 to kill the rival auditorium, thereby eliminating any possibility of a “Make do!” argument. As Councilor McIvor points out, the absence of a large performing arts facility in a city of this size would be incongruous, making it much easier to pressure both the federal and provincial governments for funding. It is a shrewd strategy and may indeed improve our chances of receiving outside funding for a stunning new facility. Three problems though: The first is that our chances of outside funding may be improved, but still be very slim. We hear a lot of slogans about commitment, and “horsepower”, and “getting on with it” when discussing a new facility. What we do not hear is any specific funding commitments. The second problem is that a third of the capital cost and all operating losses of the new facility will be borne by local taxpayers. So while the Macbeth strategy may indeed compel outsiders to fund our new facility, it also compels local taxpayers to come up with a tidy pile of money. Taxpayers may balk at precipitating their own facilities deficit and respond: “You had an okay auditorium; you knocked it down.” The third problem (as Councilor Ashton recognized) is the gymnasium has become pawn in these machinations. Mr. Reid acknowledged early in his presentation to council that he initially thought saving both the gym and auditorium was a no-brainer, as did 60% of the people surveyed by the city. Somehow, the simplicity of it all has been lost.

I cannot recall how Macbeth ends (and since we are knocking down our best theatre with no replacement in sight, I am in little danger of being reminded). But I do recall some anxiety about a “damned spot” of blood. If their strategy falls short, perhaps the mayor and certain councilors will be similarly haunted by spots of demolition debris.