Friday, March 28, 2008

Denis O'Gorman: Strategy needed on auditorium

The following letter appeared in the March 28, 2008, edition of the Western News. Mr. O'Gorman is a community planner and a former Assistant Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Environment, Lands & Parks

In his letter published March 14, Gerry Karr raised the spectre of a public policy hijacking by a special interest group. His target was the group advocating retention of the Pen High auditorium. However, the advocates for a whole new centre, the Penticton and District Performing Arts Facilities Society, are already beneficiaries of a $2.5 million land grant plus significant funding for both feasibility and business plan studies from the city, suggesting they have made substantial inroads on setting public policy in Penticton.

Rhetoric about hijacking is unhelpful at a time when d├ętente, analysis and dialogue would seem more valuable. As starting points of agreement, most parties including the above key groups would agree that Penticton’s downtown needs enhancement; an arts precinct and corridor could be a valued contribution to downtown vitality; and a new arts facility could help meet cultural aspirations, enhance livability and potentially also tourism.

Realizing these high objectives, however, requires a fuller downtown design strategy, a clearer picture of realistic tourism goals in a very competitive market and focused analysis of realistic cultural expectations. These have yet to surface.

Regarding a city-funded “needs assessment,” this, to my knowledge, has yet to be made available to inform the thinking of Penticton’s taxpayers. Similarly, a study which allegedly confirms financial feasibility has yet to be made generally available. There is considerable reason for skepticism given the extensive commitments to the events centre, rising property tax levels, and denial of an appropriate level of financial support to existing cultural facilities such as the Art Gallery of the South Okanagan.

Moreover, there appears to be the assumption by the arts facility society of considerable federal and provincial contributions without the sources for such funds being identified. Finally, the issue of potential internal competition with the events centre should be openly examined as part of a market analysis.

A starting point for the city would be to post the completed studies (on both cultural needs and financial feasibility) on the city’s website. This should be quickly followed by a preliminary design study to establish general physical feasibility of an Ellis Street site.

Similarly the deliverables from the $50,000 allocated to the performing arts facility society should be specified. This is a reasonable expectation given that most organizations develop their business plans using internal resources and available templates.

In the meantime, the reality of the Pen High auditorium and north gym, as “birds in the hand” should not be dismissed. Of course, they don’t represent “auditorium beautiful” and supporters acknowledge several shortcomings such as inadequate foyer and backstage space. However, the present auditorium and gym are standing and apparently upgradable. Moreover, upgrading costs are more likely feasible in terms of overall taxpayer impact. Plus an existing auditorium (and gym) can meet diverse community needs while carefully considered financial and development plans for a more permanent venue are developed.

A considered “side-by-side” analysis of the upgrade and new facility options including capital and operating costs would be especially helpful. It should identify funding sources and the respective implications for the city’s finances given clear funding assumptions. This information might even help guide a voter referendum on the question.

Certainly choice should not be pre-empted by a rush to demolish the Pen High auditorium and gym as is apparently being pursued by the school board. Sure, it’s Plan B from their perspective but overall public benefits of having an interim (10 years perhaps) auditorium and accessible gym may well warrant a sober second look.

And should provincial funding formulas be the driving concern of the school board, couldn’t they and any associated policies be revisited? With the help of our MLA, perhaps a staged building retention and transition strategy to best represent the overall civic interest might be forged. Constructive collaboration, as was done for ball field upgrades, would seem to present Penticton taxpayers their best option, at least while a consensus-based strategy on cultural needs and facilities is developed with both the city and school board actively engaged.

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