Friday, February 29, 2008

Two schools of thought at odds over future of Pen High facilities

By Steve Kidd - Penticton Western News - February 29, 2008

There are two sides to every issue, and while School District 67 has solid arguments for proceeding with the demolition of the old auditorium at Penticton Secondary, another group is becoming increasingly vocal about their last-minute attempt to save the building.

Last week, city and school district representatives held a press conference to effectively announce that the time for any proposals to save the building was past. But the Penticton League of Electors said they aren’t finished yet, and suggest they may call a meeting of their own to rally public support.

And the newly formed league has some powerful, voices making the arguments for their position. Former Penticton mayor Dave Perry, former cabinet minister Tom Siddon and retired school district superintendent of facilities Ron Mason are all on the roster, and say the league is confident that given a stay of execution they can develop a proposal to save the buildings.

“I worked for the school district from 1973 until I retired in 1999, so I was very familiar with the buildings” said Mason. “We did quite a bit of work on establishing a plan to preserve them, because all the utilities are lost once the buildings (the rest of the school complex) are demolished.”

The school board did provide an opportunity for a group to come forward and save the buildings, but only the City of Penticton responded, and after consideration, declined. When their deadline — June 30, 2007 — passed, the school board went ahead developing their plans, making the site of the auditorium part of the parking lot.

The city did agree to take responsibility for redeveloping the Shatford Building, which will be developed into an arts centre with renovations beginning in 2009.

“If someone had come forward, you would see the auditorium on the plans today,” said Frank Regher, school district secretary-treasurer.

He said without an initiative from the community, the school board does not want to keep the buildings.

“They’re considered to have reached the end of their lives.”

There’s no dispute between the two sides that the demolition of the rest of the school buildings would require major changes to the gym and auditorium to make them into standalone units. Utilities, like a new heating plant and electrical services, would be required, as well as modifications to the fire sprinkler system. And along with the utilities, amenities like washrooms and a new entrance system would also be required.

All of these things, Mason said, have been figured into their plan, at an estimated cost of $1.2 million.

“There’s no contest on that, we know we can do it,” said Mason. “Our position is to preserve them as they are, until such time as there is funding in place to replace them.”

However, the City of Penticton, after studying the possibilities, decided not to take on the option of preserving the old buildings.

“With all the items done, it will still be an old structure with a limited life span,” said Mayor Jake Kimberly.

Instead the city went ahead with supporting the concept of developing a cultural corridor alongside Penticton Creek, with a new performing arts centre as the keystone.

But with the construction of the proposed performing arts centre years away, proponents of saving the buildings say they could continue to provide much-needed space, both for performances and indoor recreation activities.

“Does it make sense to wait for up to 10 years with nothing?” said Perry. “The cost of what they’re proposing for the performing arts centre is really prohibitive.”

However, both the city and the school district counter that no such pressing need exists, that the city and the schools have spaces that are under-utilized.

“Our resources are not used to the extent that they should be,” said Little, talking about school gym facilities. “When I consider that ... I don’t think there’s the great lack of gym space that has been made out.”

Kimberly also pointed out that when the Shatford Building is redeveloped as a community arts centre, Pen High’s original gym, inside that building, could be used as a small 250-seat performance space. Along with Cleland Theatre, he said, there should be sufficient performance space in the short term.

Parking is an issue of contention. The League of Electors argues that there is no need to convert the auditorium space into parking, suggesting that it would be more environmentally responsible to reduce parking as a way of encouraging more students to bus or walk to school.

The school district says good parking and access is necessary for the safety of the students and staff.

“The board is very concerned with traffic congestion and student safety,” said Little. “We do not want to see a repeat of the problem that exists at KVR (middle school) accessing the parking.”

Little said the board doesn’t disagree with the idea of being environmentally friendly, but questions the likelihood of getting students to walk to school.

“Parking is a reality,” he said. “Students will drive regardless.”

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