Thursday, June 14, 2007

Michael Brydon: Why Mayor Kimberley is wrong

I stated in recent letter that the City of Penticton's decision to decline the opportunity to acquire the Pen-Hi gym and auditorium is incoherent. I understand that the decision has already been made and I should get on with my life. But it is important to recognize that the mayor did not permit public response to council's arguments during the debate on the issue. As a result, a lot of nonsense went unchallenged and some of us now feel compelled to conduct a kind of postmortem debate in the opinion pages of the local paper.

If you watch the archived recording of the gym/auditorium deliberations, you will see that there is much that begs for rebuttal. However, given space constraints, I will concentrate on the three key elements of Mayor Kimberley's argument for demolishing the buildings: A lack of parking for auditorium events, the availability of a newer, state-of-the art high school gym for community use, and uncertainty regarding the cost of converting the buildings for community use. As a general observation, the mayor's arguments suffer from two shortcomings. First, in each case, his facts are exactly wrong. Second, he fails to apply the same critical logic to his preferred alternative (immediate construction of a new $30M performing arts centre). Let's review the details:

Parking: Following a presentation by Dr. Sandra Congram, a spokesperson for Save Our North Gym (SONG), Mayor Kimberley asked if SONG's proposal addressed the parking issues that would arise when events held in the gym/auditorium coincided with regular school activities. This question is so comprehensively clueless that, when I heard it, I had a moment of self-doubt and actually checked the Internet for theatre schedules. Of course, I discovered what I already knew—what everyone knows—that theatre events are rarely (if ever?) scheduled during school hours. For example, the Sunshine Theatre series in Kelowna starts at 8:00 PM on evenings and matinees run only on Saturdays. Thus, rather than posing a parking problem, the Pen-Hi auditorium exists in almost perfect parking symbiosis with the school: when school is out, its hundreds of parking spaces can be used by theatre patrons. A downtown performing arts facility, in contrast, does pose major parking challenges, especially if, as the mayor suggests, dozens of condominiums are stacked on top of the facility to help defray its costs. Surprisingly the mayor's parking concerns were not challenged by anyone, including other members of council or even a local press outlet, which dutifuly opined that the Pen-Hi auditorium poses intractable parking problems. As for gym activities during the school day, these are equally unlikely. The whole point of saving the gym as a community resource is so that it may be used after school and after work.

Community use of the new Pen-Hi gym: In dismissing the need to save the Pen-Hi gym, Mayor Kimberley asserted that the new gym currently under construction for Pen-Hi will be available for community use (thereby negating the need for the older structure). In reality, high school gyms in Penticton are rarely available for community use because high school teams monopolize their gyms for most of the year. Dr. Congram explained this to the mayor and the city's Director of Special Projects, Barry Reid had, in his presentation just moments before, said the following: "The high school gyms are normally fully used; it is tough to get into them." (A video summary of this exchange can be found on YouTube) The mayor's certainty caused in me another moment of self-doubt, so I checked with both Maggie and Pen-Hi and discovered what I already knew: the high school gyms are booked solid during much of the year. Moreover, both high schools also make liberal use of the adjacent middle school gyms (copies of the gym schedules for both high schools have been posted on the SONG website). Although Mr. Reid acknowledged that the city faces a shortage of prime-time gym space for community groups, the city's position is that we can make do with our many empty elementary school gyms. Again, there is a logical inconsistency: the mayor advocates demolition of the Pen-Hi auditorium because it lacks a pleasing spot in which to have a glass of wine during intermission. However, citizens of less refined tastes—such as members of the 25 or so teams in this city who play adult recreational volleyball four nights a week for most of the year—are asked to make do with tiny elementary school gyms with dusty floors, low ceilings, and no space for warming up or spectators.

Cost uncertainty: The cost projections presented by SONG were developed by Greyback Construction at no cost to the city. The projections were then reviewed by city staff and verified by an independent quantity surveyor. Despite the time, effort, and cost expended on developing and verifying these estimates, Mayor Kimberley decided that the $1.2M-$1.5M estimate was too low. Councilor Litke concurred, based on his experience with used cars. Even if Messers Kimberley and Litke know something that construction professionals do not, which is unlikely, the same logic must then be applied to the new performing arts facility. If the city cannot afford cost inflation on a project with a base price of $1.5M, how can it then recommend an alternative with a base price of $30M?

The net result of the mayor's factual contortions and inconsistent logic is that people actually believe him when he says that it makes more sense to chase a $30M facility than make do with what we have until we resolve some of the uncertainty regarding funding (and demand) for the new performing arts facility. At the very least, the city should mothball the gym and auditorium until they have the $30M in hand. Alas, a clique of local politicians has apparently hatched a clever plan that requires expeditious demolition of the Pen-Hi auditorium (the Pen-Hi gym being mere collateral damage in all this). But that is a topic for a future letter...