Thursday, June 21, 2007

Michael Brydon: Response to Ben Amos' letter

In an op-ed piece in the June 20th, 2007, edition of The Herald, Ben Amos criticized the letter in which I concluded that funding for the proposed $30M performing arts facility would be difficult to raise. Just to clarify: the point of my letter was not to disparage the folks who have invested time and effort into the proposal. On the contrary, the consensus within SONG is, and always has been, that a new performing arts facility would be beneficial to the city. What we do not understand is why local politicians and (surprisingly) the leadership of the performing arts facility society are so keen to knock down the old auditorium before raising the first dollar for its replacement. It is not like the old has to cleared to make room for the new (the Pen-Hi auditorium is on Eckhardt; the proposed facility will be downtown). Nor is it true that cost of retaining the Pen-Hi auditorium and gym somehow jeopardizes the new facility—it is a trivial amount compared to $30M. If proponents of the new facility are willing to take outrageous risks in order raise $1.2M-$1.5M, then they are in worse shape than we thought.

The point of this posting is to address some of Mr. Amos' criticisms head on. I have no intention of responding in The Herald because it is difficult to rebut sarcasm and name-calling with anything but more of the same. As my wife points out, the result would be be... unseemly. So I will respond to Mr. Amos in this less public venue....

Arts spending about more than just political expediency

It is unfortunate we have among us people who are unable to articulate any thing other than negativity.
Yes, but for the record, I was also called "negative" when I predicted that the SOEC would cost taxpayers money back when the quoted price was still just $30M (see my blog posting).
One recent letter-writer chose to advise us on all his perceived reasons why something might or might not happen and even has the audacity to forwarn us he will let us know where proponents of a new performing arts facility are both "confident and wrong".
Actually, I did not say all proponents of the new facility, I said some (by which I mostly meant Mayor Kimberley). The mayor's factual errors are a matter of public record (see the posting below). We even have video. Decide for yourself whether the evidence is audacious.
It makes one breathless with anticipation.
I can't tell if this is sarcasm. I will assume it is not.
It may be that the strategy is meant to generate and even exacerbate any potential divisions of opinion in the city.
Potential divisions of opinion? How about actual and substantive divisions of opinion? According to the western intellectual tradition, such differences should be resolved through a process of debate or, more gratuitously, the Hegelian dialectic. Certain politicians in the community have stated a thesis (funding for the new facility is just around the corner). I have countered with an antithesis (acquiring funding is going to be difficult). So far, so good. Now, we are supposed to resolve our differences through a rational consideration of the facts. Dismissing my objections as mere pessimism is not a synthesis; it is the suppression of debate.
It is my understanding, following discussions early on with a proponent of saving the the Penticton Secondary Gym gymnasium, the Save the Gym group was originally formed to do just that—lobby to save the gym.
Um, had Mr. Amos bothered to check this website, he would have known that our mandate is, and always has been to save both buildings. Saving one and not the other makes little sense, as discussed in our FAQ. Even so, I am not sure what the point is here.
Yet the school board has never considered the gym as a retention option.
We have tended to dismiss the school board's view on this matter for one simple reason: According to a survey conducted by city staff, 60% of taxpayers in the city think it makes sense for the city to save both buildings (from Barry Reid's presentation during the June 4th, 2007, morning council meeting). In a democracy, what the people think is more important than what their elected officials think.
We now know the two facilities (gym and auditorium) are virtually inseparable. The "Save the Gym" group would now have us believe it is the auditorium that is the principle driver.
Um, no. First of all, we "now know" the gym and auditorium are inseparable because Larry Kenyon (President of Greyback Construction, professional engineer, and SONG member) told us so after analyzing the salvage options. Second, Mr. Amos' chronology is wrong—a fact easily verified by the time-stamped materials on this site and in the local newspapers. SONG has always had members of the performing arts community among its ranks and has always recognized the importance to the community of the Pen-Hi auditorium.
The group finds itself in the strange position of criticizing the city over a decision not to expend funds on what would have been open-ended expenditures for costly renovations on an obsolete structure that the school board does not want...
Many adjectives here: open-ended, costly, obsolete. First, Mr. Amos' financial assertions are not supported with any data. In contrast, the $1.2M-$1.5M estimate for saving the gym and auditorium has been reviewed by city staff and verified by a professional third-party quantity surveyor hired by the city. Second, it seems a bit rich for a proponent of a $30M (unverified) project to call a $1.5M project costly. Obsolete is, of course, a more subjective measure. All we can do is weight Mr. Amos' conclusions against those of the many performers and audience members who have spoke out in favor of the Pen-Hi auditorium.
...—in fact, wants it out of the way of its new development.
To be more precise, the school board wants the two buildings out of the way of its new parking lot (and bus loop, though why the buses do not unload on Jermyn—where the new school will be—is unknown to me).
The other cynical thesis put forward was that funding from senior levels of government is purely a matter of political expediency.
Mr. Amos is right about this—it is cynical. But that does not mean it is wrong. The reader will have to draw on his/her own experience with the political process to come to a conclusion.
All levels of government have a responsibility and interest in re-investing our tax dollars in the arts for the benefit of all.
Nicely put, and true. But this strikes me as hopelessly naive. Governments also have a responsibility to provide health care, fight wars, host Olympics, reduce greenhouse gases, fund education, resolve land claims, and on and on. Since the costs of these responsibilities far exceed the money available, Mr. Amos' argument does not really say anything; it is an empty platitude with no predictive ability whatsoever. Indeed, I am more than a little worried that this is the extent of their reasoning on the issue. Put it this way: they better have something better—a secret deal or backroom assurance of funding—or they are going to have some explaining to do to my kids.
The Penticton and District Performing Arts Facilities Society has always been positive in addressing Penticton's need for the state-of-the-art facility.
Good, but the problem is not PDPAFS's lack of positive energy; it is their lack of $30M.
They have consciously stayed away from the nostalgia-driven efforts to maintain and outdated structure.
They have done more than stay away. In the June 4, 2007, city council meeting, PDPAFS chair Don Grant recommend that the Pen-Hi auditorium be demolished. This recommendation which, as noted above, has no impact on PDPAFS's plans, adversely impacts the gym. Mr. Grant launched an unnecessary attack on SONG's interests in order to further (however marginally) the interests of PDPAFS. Hardly heroic.

As for "nostalgia-driven", Mr. Amos is guilty of putting his words into SONG's mouth. Had he taken the time to read the material on our site, he would have found exactly zero instances of "a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition" (Webster). It is true that many SONG members have a sentimental attachment to their tax dollars, but this is a different matter.
Our city has a population of approximately 34,000 and the region it serves is close to 100,000. In addition, tourism adds to its population base in the summer months.
The population is growing, with most new residents in the 45-65 group of above-average income, coming from other major centres of Canada,...
In fact, Penticton's population growth is below the provincial average (see the latest census data). But this slow growth is probably due to substitution (young and poor for older and richer), so Mr. Amos' observation is likely correct in spirit.
...often with high expectations for access to the performing arts.
And they are going to be some choked when they discover that we knocked over our best auditorium without bothering to get a firm commitment to fund a new one.
Cities across Canada and around the world are realizing the arts in general, performing arts in particular, are one of the keys to the new urban economy...
I must have missed the memo on this. Plus, I don't believe there are many who retire to Penticton in order to partake in the urban economy. Mr. Amos, for example, owns a vineyard—what could be less urban?
They fuel creativity which is key to economic growth.
This is a pretty broad assertion. When I look around Vancouver, I see plenty of cranes working on public infrastructure. But they are not building facilities for the the performing arts; they are building university facilities (UBC and SFU) and research hospitals (Abbotsford). I teach in a business school and I have to acknowledge my failure to see dance and theatre as the key to our future economic development. Indeed, I would argue that the whole point of economic development is to create wealth and leisure so that we, as a society, have opportunities to participate in the arts. That is, the arts should exist for their own sake, not as a means to material accumulation.
A new performing arts facility in our downtown core would be the centre-point for an emergent downtown cultural district and a great asset for our businesses.
Hmm, a theatre and a Starbucks does not a cultural district make. Wait, don't tell me: Theatre-goers are going to grab dinner first and drinks after and the benefits for the local economy are going to be huge! The problem is that this reasoning is known to be flawed. We are talking here about discretionary spending. The money could have just as easily been spent on dinner, drinks, and a substitute (e.g., hockey game) if the theatre was unavailable. There is no growth in this type of spending, just an alternative allocation of money to competing uses. Again, it is a bad sign when efforts are made to justify the arts in terms of return on investment.
There are those who would espouse a moratorium on all things, no matter how beneficial, because of the construction of the South Okanagan Events Centre.
Yes, these people are known as "accountants".
This is unreasonable and unnecessarily-angst ridden. A manageable city debt is a fact of life.
To have any meaning at all, Mr. Amos would have to define what he means by "manageable". In addition, he has no idea what the SOEC is going to costs—no one does. But a few paragraphs back, he was deploring "open-ended expenditures for costly renovations". Now, money is no object, as long as we get to see "The Producers".
It will take some time to raise funds and to construct an arts facility we will all be proud of.
Mr. Amos needs to talk to Messers McIvor and Grant. They estimated 24-36 months to completion during the June 4, 2007, city council meeting. If it does take longer, as Mr. Amos seems to be implying, perhaps we can gather around a scaled down production of "The Producers" in Pen-Hi's ample parking lot.
We should move ahead now. Rather than criticize those with passion and foresight and the persistence to to keep on with the task, we should positively applaud their efforts...
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day. (HenryV, IV, iii)
In keeping with an apparent need for cliches—don't throw good money after bad.
Hmm, I think this makes more sense when a bad investment has been made and more money is required to prop it up, resulting in further losses. But both the Pen-Hi gym and auditorium have proved themselves to be workhorses. Everyone—with the exception of a few who seem maniacally obsessed with razing them from the earth in the belief that doing so will somehow help them raise $30M—says nice things about these buildings.

So what do I conclude from Mr. Amos' letter? Despite Mr. Amos' name-calling, sarcasm, and platitudes, he has failed to address the big question that I hear both inside and outside of SONG meetings: Why are we knocking down the Pen-Hi auditorium before we know whether we can build a new facility? And if we do knock it down, what happens if PDPAFS comes up short? Blame is like a plane: it has to land somewhere.