Friday, July 4, 2008

Anita Fashler: Not worthless after all

A slightly edited version of the following appeared in the July 4th, 2008, edition of the Penticton Herald:

Why does the school board and city council call the north gym and auditorium “worthless, surplus to the school’s needs” (Penticton Herald, 6 June 2008)? Why did they pursue an over half million dollar upgrade of the gym while at the same time planning it’s demolition? Why are all practical, common sense alternatives made by numerous public groups representing the taxpayers of Penticton immediately rejected by your elected officials? Many local groups and individuals have documented the usefulness and relevancy of both the gym and the auditorium. In fact, the recent court challenge requesting a re-evaluation of the demolition of these buildings includes sworn affidavits giving specific facts and figures. Alternatively the School Board and City Council are anxious to complete their original plans for demolition before the next civic election. It is difficult to view this decision as anything more than arbitrary and a grave misjudgment of public assets.

Why would the auditorium be viewed as “worthless” when Penticton has only one other functioning arts venue? For example, the City of Vancouver has 15 different arts and cultural venues. In addition to these public theatres, the Vancouver School Board has five high schools with auditoriums seating from 520 to 742. Four of these five facilities are decades old. The recently re-built Magee Senior Secondary included a new auditorium with 550 seats, replacing their previous facility. Apparently in other cities, high school auditoriums are not considered “worthless, surplus to school needs”. Penticton has two arts venues, including the Cleland Theatre and the joint school/community Pen High auditorium. The Pen High auditorium has seating for 743.

The high school auditoriums in Vancouver are used for the schools but are also rented for public use on weekdays, weekends, and during vacations. When rented, these facilities are providing revenue to the School Board. Rental rates during the school year range from $404 for the first four hours on weekdays to $834 on weekends. These rates increase during the summer months. The Penticton School Board has admitted to not vigorously advertising for out of school rentals, no doubt to support their opinion that the building is “worthless”.

The Penticton School Board and the City Council are powerful bodies. As such, they have pursued their demolition agenda without listening to their constituents. However, the public should know that they themselves are the ultimate power, with the Board and Council merely their elected representatives. The redevelopment of Pen High was presented over 4 years ago. With persistent public pressure and exposure, the people of Penticton are now becoming aware that this plan was not all undertaken in good faith.

The gym and auditorium are neither worthless nor surplus to school and community needs. For example, the auditorium has unique acoustic properties (Jonathan Sevy, letter to city council and school board, October, 2003). Several employees of the city’s park and recreation department have openly admitted that the current demand for prime-time gym space in Penticton exceeds capacity (Michael Brydon, April, 2007). If the auditorium and gym were marketed, they could raise funds for the school and the community or help to pay for their own maintenance and operation. How can burying these buildings in a landfill be responsible use of tax dollars?
The plans prepared by community experts to retain the gym and the auditoriums were based on detailed analysis, not sentimentality. They mapped out alternative configurations that would not affect the new school. The response from the School Board was “it is still our property and still our decision” (Brydon, April, 2007). The Board itself did no feasibility studies on possible retention of these buildings during any of their planning decisions. Your elected officials have never wavered in 4 years: they need a parking lot and it has to be exactly where these buildings now stand.

The future of the gym and auditorium must be based on honest documented data and reflect the wishes of the common sense, practical and responsible taxpayers of Penticton. It should not be left to the arbitrary whims of politicians near the end of their mandate.

Anita Kvestich Fashler (Vancouver)