Monday, July 23, 2007

Allan Markin: City witnesses a performance for the ages

The following column appeared in the July 20th, 2007, edition of the Western News. Allan Markin is a Penticton freelance writer and a member of the Penticton and District Performing Arts Facilities Society (PDPAFS)

Once upon a time not so long ago, the citizens of Penticton awoke from a deep sleep, looked around at their peaceful little hamlet, and realized that the world was passing them by. Many liked it that way and went back to sleep. Some were sorely afflicted and began searching for mistakes made in the past by casting aspersions at previous civic leaders.

Others, looking into the future and calling themselves visionaries, began revising Penticton’s Official Community Plan. Soon there was building going on everywhere. Developers and speculators could be seen pounding on counters at City Hall, waving their plans around like broad swords. Sky cranes started flying above the city like giant albatrosses.

Tall (some said too tall) buildings began casting their shadows over previously quiet residential streets. Big-box retailers lined up at the city gates to beg for permission to locate in what was rapidly becoming a “boom” town. A roundabout to help eliminate massive downtown traffic jams was installed.

Soon the biggest and brightest jewel in the city’s crown, the South Okanagan Event Centre, was conceived, holding out the promise that Penticton would become the sporting capital of the region, maybe even the world. A few citizens complained about the excessive cost, but in a short time their protestations were heard no more. Some folks who value verdant parkland objected to losing green space. They too became silent. In a few short weeks power shovels occupied the site; they sat and waited for the command to dig, looking like a gang of praying mantis at a giant insect convention.

Another group of citizens, small in number but noted for their sober and perceptive thinking, asked: “what is missing from this picture?” They quickly concluded that Penticton and the South Okanagan did not have a state-of-the-art performing arts centre. They declared that such a shortcoming had to be remedied and immediately began working on the problem.

They had professionals study the situation, both as to need and feasibility, concluding that such a project was indeed much needed and doable. After careful study they also concluded that neither the Pen High auditorium nor the Cleland Theatre merited renovation. “Throwing good money after bad does not make practical economic sense,” they declared.

Officials at School District No. 67, engaged in building a new high school, remained steadfastly committed to demolishing the auditorium. Keeping it didn’t fit into their plans. City Hall decreed after careful analysis that renovating Cleland Theatre would be economically impractical, especially since renovations would compromise the integrity of several other parts on the Community Centre.

The resulting controversy was deafening. Refined ladies, overcome by powerful waves of nostalgia, rose from their fainting couches to plead, sometimes tearfully, that the auditorium, which was rumoured to have been built by the great ancient god Acousticus, must be saved.

They wrote letters to the newspapers. They evangelized on street corners. They sent angry e-mails. They engaged the support of experienced builders, whose knowledge of theatre design and operations was largely unknown. They cogitated and agitated, until several famous and not-so-famous performers were so moved that they just had to offer impassioned testimonials to the great hall, aka a tired, old high-school auditorium.

Soon the thunderous voice of an economist-soothsayer was heard coming from the wilderness in the west. He analyzed. He espoused conspiracy theories. He consulted his university text books. His views were published in the local paper.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, six former mayors came together, declaring that they had “buried their hatchets for this important civic cause.” Citizens who were keenly aware of past city politics didn’t believe them. Some reluctantly gave them the benefit of the doubt. Others wondered if any of the mayors had bothered to read the studies and reports that were available before joining the movement to save the old auditorium.

Everyone agreed that their communion was an excellent photo-op, especially if some of them were considering running for office in the next election. Everyone enjoyed the pretty picture that appeared on the front page of the local paper on what must have been a slow news day.

But the small group of visionaries working towards the creation of a modern performing arts centre remained undaunted. Knowing they had the facts on their side, they slept peacefully, dreaming of the multitudes flocking to the new facility to enjoy the great variety of performing arts.

They envisioned the rejuvenation of Penticton’s downtown core through the development of a fine multi-faceted cultural space that would become part of the city’s core infrastructure, an entity commonly seen in mature cities all around the world.

They marveled at the economic benefit that such a facility would bring to the city and region. They thrilled at the enhanced quality of life all citizens would enjoy. And they were glad.

My editorial comment: This is a nice bit of writing that is meant, I suppose, to poke fun at some of the people involved in the current debate about the Pen-Hi gym and auditorium (myself included). This is all well and good, but there is something about PDPAFS's strategy that escapes me: Why are they attacking people who want to save the Pen-Hi buildings (S.O.N.G., ex-mayors, Dodi Morrison, etc.)?

There is nothing about building a new performing arts facility that precludes saving the Pen-Hi gym and auditorium. However, PDPAFS has created an unnecessary link between knocking down the old buildings and moving forward on the new. In my view, this this was a strategic blunder on their part because it casts those of us in favor of saving the Pen-Hi gym and auditorium as the opposition. It forces us to highlight the many risks and unknowns in PDPAFS's proposal in a desperate attempt to situate the Pen-Hi buildings as an insurance policy against their failure to raise sufficient funds. A vicious cycle ensues**. But this need not be the case—it should be possible to be in favor of both saving the Pen-Hi buildings and building a new performing arts facility.

In the best case, we end up with a new performing arts facility and the Pen-Hi buildings. Although the School District has been granted money for a new school and cannot publicly acknowledge that the new Pen-Hi's lack of an auditorium is a problem, some people in this town who have actually taught performing arts at Pen-Hi do see it as a problem. Fortunately, there is no reason that (once the new school is complete) students at Pen-Hi and other schools cannot make use of the old auditorium. In other words, Penticton could benefit from both a new performing arts facility and an old auditorium adjacent to Pen-Hi.

Alas, PDPAFS does not see it like this. I can only conclude that the leaders of PDPAFS believe they can further the society's agenda by actively obstructing and denigrating other agendas. Allan Markin's column provides an exemplar of this stratgy.

** A textbook-trained economist would instantly recognize this as a Prisoner's Dilemma (and seek to avoid it).