Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Michael Brydon: "Get on with it" or "look before you leap"

A slightly edited version of the following letter appeared in the June 14, 2007 edition of the Herald:

I have advocated converting the Pen-Hi gym and auditorium into community use facilities so I was disappointed when I heard of city council’s decision not pursue the opportunity. I could not attend the council meeting at which the decision was made due to travel, but I assumed that the outcome was the result of sound judgment and careful consideration of the facts. I was ready to admit that we had lost the battle and relieved to be done with the whole matter. But then I watched the archived video of council’s June 4th deliberations. The question I am now asking is whether a decision based on transparently shaky logic and a sometimes comical misapprehension of the facts actually resolves anything? The more I review the arguments used to justify the demolition of the gym and auditorium, the more I am convinced that council’s decision is not merely bad, it is incoherent. My objective in writing this letter (and any sequels) is to convince anyone who will listen that something is broken.

The gym/auditorium issue has many facets, but the most important justification for demolishing the buildings is that the city will soon have a new performing arts facility. Little information about the proposed facility has been made public (despite the fact that will be paid for with taxpayers’ money) but the basic idea is that it will cost roughly $30M and require funding from federal, provincial, municipal, and perhaps even private sources. Proponents of the facility and several members of council, including the mayor, are confident that the funding will be in place and the curtain will rise in the new facility within 24-36 months. But, given that some of these folks have already demonstrated the ability to be both confident and wrong at the same time (more about this in a future letter), it is worth drawing our own conclusions about the inevitability of funding. Let’s consider the potential sources:

  • Federal: Conservatives have a doctrinal aversion to spending taxpayers' money on the arts. However, given their minority status, the Conservatives might be willing to fund some projects in an attempt to secure a majority. The problem is that Stockwell Day received more votes than the other three candidates combined in the 2006 election and has since been promoted to cabinet. His seat is one of the safest in Canada. Why then would scarce federal funding come here when it can be used in Ontario or Quebec to make a difference?
  • Provincial: Messers Barisoff and Thorpe can join Mr. Day in the Safe Seat Club, having already delivered a whopping $50M contribution to the SOEC. So why would the provincial Liberals, who are facing increasing financial pressure from Olympic overruns, set an unsustainable precedent by giving a small city in a safe riding even more money?
  • Municipal: Proponents of a new performing arts facility like to point to a series of studies and plans commissioned over the last couple of decades. Unfortunately, those documents became ancient history the moment the city agreed to underwrite the $17M cost overrun of the SOEC. In addition, new surprises might be in store once the SOEC is complete. Although a real business plan for the SOEC was never made public, it is clear the city expects the facility to turn a profit. But as communities such as Cranbrook and Youngstown, OH, have discovered, the revenue projections used to justify the construction of such facilities may bear little relation to actual revenues. Under the terms of its contract with its private sector partner, the City of Penticton bears almost all of the risk of operating losses, which may be significant. Making commitments to other major capital projects before the city’s true liabilities can be estimated with any precision strikes me as reckless.
  • Private investors: Both Mayor Kimberley and Larry Little, the chair of School District 67, have argued in favor of the destruction of Pen-Hi’s auditorium by pointing out that building is seldom used. Others have responded that the district’s restrictive booking policies (e.g., no setup until the end of the school day) are the culprit and that events would be easier to book if the auditorium were under community control. Either way, an unused auditorium is hardly a ringing endorsement of the financial viability of an expensive replacement. More recently, the mayor has floated the possibility of using condominium development to cross-subsidize the provision of a new performing arts facility. No information on this idea has been forthcoming so it is hard to comment on its merits. However, given the city’s lack of success in getting developers to do simple things, like build on the vacant Three Gables site or invest in a supermarket in the downtown core, it is not clear how the city is going to convince a developer to underwrite an expensive money-losing auditorium.
Given this political and financial calculus, I would put the probability of raising $30M in the next 36 months somewhere between bleak and dismal. At the very least, we should acknowledge that the city is making important irreversible decisions in the face of massive uncertainty. Fortunately, much of this uncertainty can be reduced at low cost. Since the performing arts facility society insists that it cannot raise money until it owns land, the city’s first priority should be to acquire this land. This way, we can see whether all the happy talk about funding has any basis in fact. Naturally, the land could revert to the city if the fundraising fell short, making the transaction essentially risk-free for the city.

Unfortunately, the city has confused knocking over its backup facility (“Getting on with it”, seems to be the dominant slogan) and rational first steps. The prevailing theory seems to be that the $1.5M required to save the gym and auditorium should be spent to buy the land for the new performing arts facility. But $1.5M (which also buys us a large, much needed gymnasium) is a mere 5% of the cost of a new facility. It is like council saying it cannot afford travel insurance because it needs the money for airfare. My response is that, if it cannot afford insurance, it should not be traveling at all. Unfortunately, most councilors are unmoved by risk mitigation strategies or conventional logic. Instead, they seem to be most interested in facile slogans. As a conclusion then, let me offer some proven winners: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Look before you leap.

Dodi Morrison: Decision divides community

The following appeared in the Western News on June 8, 2007:

This week Penticton city council decided to tear down Pen High auditorium and the attached gym. This was in spite of a very well-delivered and sensible presentation telling of all the uses that could be found for this quite newly renovated structure (that is, the gym). I was urged to attend the meeting but had the impression that we had till the end of June to come up with a plan and even thought one was almost in place — for the auditorium. I wished to speak, but apparently there was no time.

Why is the auditorium considered so old? The three schools I attended in Vancouver, which are far older, are still going strong with a little tweaking here and there. Our solidly built auditorium stands on cement and only the wood structure of the stage needs replacing. That could be done, I am told by reliable builders, for only $2-3 million, including dressing rooms, bathrooms and an entrance. That is a sum our small city could handle. Not that I would not enjoy a new venue with all the bells and whistles. But we have enough debt now, with the event centre and all the infrastructure caused by the many new buildings in town. Only the elite seem to want new taxes.

Monday night I sat beside a woman who lives in White Rock, hardly an impoverished B.C. town. She voluntarily admired the structure of our auditorium “I wish we had this in White Rock. It’s beautiful!” Then there are the artists who praise its acoustics — but those aren’t supposed to matter any more, I gather.

What a sad day. And what a divided town — divided unnecessarily.

News: Free rec passes make teens more active

When 2,500 Grade 5 students in Kingston and surrounding townships were given free one-year passes, nearly three-quarters of them took advantage of the passes to increase their physical activity, according to an evaluation conducted by Queen's University researchers.

See the full story" http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=9cda755c-945e-4d70-9a5f-ae02f2537c1b