Thursday, July 12, 2007

Michael Brydon: Deliberately creating a facilities deficit

A slightly edited version of the following letter appeared in the July 12th, 2007, edition of The Herald:

Some leaders in our community, including Mayor Kimberley and Councilor McIvor subscribe to a theory. The theory is that Penticton has a better chance of raising the $30M or so that is required for a new 700-seat performing arts facility if our existing 700-seat auditorium is demolished. By deliberately creating a facilities deficit for the performing arts in Penticton (the theory goes) we can somehow compel senior levels of government to step in with most of the money for a new venue.

This is clearly a controversial gamble so its adherents seem reluctant to acknowledge their theory in public. Instead, they rely on a collection of surrogate arguments in an attempt to cast demolition of the two Pen-Hi buildings as the only fiscally responsible course of action. The problem is that these surrogate arguments are so clearly bogus. Take for example Mayor Kimberley’s recent assertion that it would be financially irresponsible for the city to spend up to $230,000 per year to operate the Pen-Hi auditorium (and gym) given that the auditorium averages only 37 events per year. This argument has at least two flaws. The first—which must have proponents a new $30M facility squirming—is that a new performing arts facility will also incur operating costs but will require an additional $8.5M of local taxpayers’ money to build. To state the obvious, this is a lot of money for 37 performances per year. How can the mayor describe himself as the champion of hard-nosed fiscal responsibility (in the face of irrational sentimentality) when the total cost of saving the two Pen-Hi buildings does not even amount to a year’s interest on the total cost of his preferred alternative? A more troubling problem is that the operating cost estimate used by the mayor includes the salary of a full-time coordinator for the performing arts. It is clear, however, that the city intends to staff this coordinator position regardless of what happens to the Pen-Hi buildings. In other words, the cost of the coordinator is irrelevant to the decision at hand and only serves to artificially inflate the operating cost estimate of the Pen-Hi gym and the auditorium. This is not kosher.

If you take a look at the SONG website (, you will see that some members of the community (myself among them) have spent time collecting information, looking at the numbers, and attempting to refute the steady stream misinformation, red herrings, and inconsistent logic from local leaders on this issue. We continue in our efforts because we believe the Pen-Hi gym and auditorium represent an unprecedented opportunity for the city to acquire valuable assets at a bargain price. Moreover, we are confident that we represent the majority view. The city’s own survey showed that most respondents (60%) were in favor of the city acquiring the buildings for community use.

Unfortunately, SONG has made little headway with local decision makers because the ruling clique never really cared much about the facts and details. Instead, they seem to be fully committed to their beguiling but seldom-articulated theory. This creates problems for SONG, which is, and always has been, firmly in favor of a new performing arts facility. We recognize that senior levels of government—who are essential sources of funding for the new facility—might tell Penticton to make do with what we have if the Pen-Hi auditorium remains standing. On the other hand, we point to the risk of being too clever by half—of destroying two valuable community resources in the name of an unproven theory. Many of us believe that the risk of being left empty handed outweighs the speculative benefits of gambling. After all, we would have been crazy to knock down Memorial Arena in 2003 when we still had no funding in place for a new (at that time) $30M events centre. More tellingly, we would be crazy to knock Memorial Arena down now, even though funding for the events centre is in place and the old building is architecturally unappealing. But perhaps as mere spectators on the outside of the political machine, we are in no position to question our elected leaders on such matters of fine strategic judgment.

The recent statement by all living ex-mayors of Penticton (save the sitting mayor, of course) changes all this. A formidable group of political veterans has delivered an unambiguous and unanimous verdict on our current leadership’s pet theory. They recommend that funding be secured for the new performing arts facility before any consideration be given to flattening our only large auditorium (and, as collateral damage, a much-needed gymnasium) to make room for a school parking lot. This is a welcome infusion of high-octane common sense into an issue that has become needlessly murky and muddled. Recipients of the ex-mayors’ rebuke are certainly free to dig in their heels, cling to their pet theory, and dismiss the collective expertise of the group as sentimental, negative, impractical, or (most absurdly) uninformed. But an unwillingness to even consider the recommendations of such a group says much about our current leadership’s willingness to place reckless bets.