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Council playing politics with the Pumphouse

By DJ Kelly April 12, 2010

It’s not very often my biggest areas of interest – local government and local arts and culture – intersect, but this is one of those times.

The Pumphouse Theatre is an amazing story that I invite you to read up on. It is one of those stories about saving Calgary’s heritage while at the same time making the city an even better place to live. The Pumphouse is owned by the City of Calgary and runs at capacity. There is a waiting list like you would not believe for community and professional theatre groups to gobble up even a week of free time in either of the Pumphouses two theatres. In short, it’s exactly what one would hope a performing arts space to be.

Because they have been at capacity for several years and the demand is so extraordinarily huge the decision was made a couple years back to expand the facility once again. The Pumphouse went through Calgary Arts Development’s Arts Spaces Initiative, was approved for funding, and placed high on the list of locations to receive financial support from the City of Calgary. Calgary City Council even awarded the project $2 million in 2008. Last week the final $2 million dollars required to make the expansion a reality went to the Community and Protective Services Standing Policy Committee of city council and, in the words of Pumphouse Theatre Executive Director Scott McTavish, “got a rough ride”.

Basically what happened – and remember I wasn’t in attendance and I’m hearing this third hand from aldermen and interested parties that were there – is political grandstanding. It’s an election year and no alderman wants to be seen as “wasteful”. Cutting the arts is an easy way to take a stand because it is often not seen as a necessity.

The problem is this is not some pet project or some “would be cool to have” third party proposal. The Pumphouse Theatres are OWNED by the City of Calgary. To not approve funding to the facility that has been recommended by all the powers that be in the City of Calgary is nothing short of being an absentee landlord. The project has been identified as achievable by Administration (after a stringent multi-year approval process they are recommending the expansion go ahead) and necessary (again, the building has a waiting list long enough it could operate two facilities and still be full).

So if a project is both acheivable AND nessecary why not fund it? They are looking for $2 million. Just a couple months ago, Cantos was approved for $25 million for a building that is in it’s very early stages of design. That is a new construction and that conversation took 10 minutes and ended with applause from council. $2 million for the Pumphouse however took an hour and forty-five minutes and was not approved.

The problem here is that the City owns the building and has NEVER, in 38 years, put a single dollar into it. And now that they are asking for $2 million to make up for the Province reneaging on a $5 million commitment, they are balking. $2 million over 38 years sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.

And here’s the kicker: the $2 million isn’t even from the property tax base. It’s going to cost the City zero dollars to give the Pumphouse $2 million. The money is coming from the Province through the Municipal Sustainability Initiative. One of the hoops you have to jump through for funding from that project is that not only does the City need to approve your project, bus so does the province. Which they have already done in this case. All of this means that if Council does not give the $2 million to the Pumphouse then guess what happens? The City has to give the money back to the Province!

That’s right. In the process of looking like they are being tough on wasteful spending, City Council is… losing $2 million and leaving another $2 million in limbo. Sigh.

The Pumphouse Theatre board and staff are more than a little confused by all this. (After all they are facility operators and not used to the often non-sensical world of politics.) So they have sent out a call to everyone affected by this recent committee decision to help them bring some common sense to Council. Below is their message.

As you may or may not know our upcoming expansion project Pumphouse 2012 received a rough ride from Community and Protective Services this past Wednesday April 8, 2010. We are working with our partners at Calgary Arts Development and City of Calgary Administration in an effort to save Pumphouse 2012 from cancellation when it comes up for reconsideration at the April 26, 2010 council meeting.

We urgently need your support and the support of your volunteers and patrons in a two-stage lobby effort. Stage 1 will involve a letter, phone, fax and e-mail campaign to select members of council including the aldermen who we want to reconsider their position on the issue: Alderman Joe Connelly, Alderman Rick McIver, Alderman Diane Colley-Urquhart, Alderman Andre Chabot, and Alderman Jim Stevenson. We also need to sway the Aldermen who have an unknown position including: Alderman Dale Hodges, Alderman Gord Lowe, Alderman Ray Jones, and Alderman Linda Fox-Mellway.

The Pumphouse is working on a draft letter of support, which we will make available to you ASAP along with contact information for you to forward to your constituents.

Stage 2 will involve a public presence at the council meeting. Our goal is to fill the council chambers with 200-300 people on April 26, 2010 at 9:30 am.

For those of you with productions remaining in the month of April we request that you include a pre-show chat preceding each of your presentations to solicit your patrons for support for the continued health and vibrancy of not only The Pumphouse, but also the diverse theatrical community in general who benefit from the existence of The Pumphouse Theatre.

Some points to include in your message are the following:

1. The city of Calgary owns the building. If there is weak support from the owner the federal government and other donors are less likely to give.
2. The building is aging; some parts are 38 years old and some 100 years old. This project is not only about an expansion to help foster the theatre community, but also about maintaining the existing building to ensure that the Pumphouse will remain an affordable venue for both community theatre and emerging professional companies.
3. If the project fails to go ahead there is a risk that the Pumphouse will cease to remain affordable due to increases in fees to cover maintenance costs. We will cease to be accessible in the event of any infrastructure failure because The Pumphouse will be forced to close its doors until such time as the city chooses to effect repairs.
4. If the city decides to support the project, all of The Pumphouse children’s theatre programs would be in house and there would be no need to rent additional facilities. We would also be able to expand programs and capacity so more children would benefit from our affordable programming.
5. If the city supports the project the expansion translates into jobs. The Pumphouse will hire more staff to assist the growing client base and children’s programming

An important question to ask is: why did the Pumphouse get a “rough ride” from Council? From what I hear one of the big sticking points with several questioners at the committee meeting was that after the Province reneged on their portion of the funding, Council did not want to commit to the project until they knew the Feds were committed. On the surface this looks like a good idea, but I have to ask: how in the world will the Feds commit to a project when the owner (the City) won’t do it first? Why not, simply add a caveat to the funding: you can have this $2 million only if the Feds come on board too. Wouldn’t that solve the issue? (I’m asking this question seriously. If it would not solve the issue, please let me know why so we can come up with a better solution. But as it stands now, this sure seems like a no brainer answer.)

  • Cutting arts is the easy way out. I hate it when they cut money in the arts department, because people who have never experienced the arts don't know what it's like.

    Two things I'd like to make a comment on

    1. Yes, $2 million isn't in property tax base, but it seems like they don't want this to snowball. Of course like you said though, it's all politics. Plus there was some important event happening this year….

    2. Even though a city owns something, it doesn't mean it has to do something with it. And I say this with deep disappoint at our city. If you read today's Metro editorial, you'll read up on a guy named Max Foran, you'll know that while the city relinquished the role of building utilities and handed that to developers in 1954. So yes the city owns it, but doesn't pay a cent for it. Who does? We do. It is bundled into the price of our property.

    We dropped the ball on taking care of the stuff we own a long time ago. A long, long time ago. We're talking Star Wars measurements of “long long time ago”.

    (If you ever listen to Max Foran, you will fall in love with him because he is so awesome).

  • Very Concerned

    As a long-term resident of the community where the Pumphouse is located, I am disappointed and frustrated with the direction this matter seems to be headed.

    Jeremy makes some good points about the accountability and funding models for maintenance of city-owned buildings such as this. However, the trends I am seeing at City Council of constantly cutting operating budgets and deferring maintenance costs of city assets to some distant future are very disturbing.

    Certain aldermen on council seem to think that saying 'No' to everything and deferring building maintenance costs are the way be fiscally prudent. I say that is short-sighted nonsense that will lead to greater and greater gaps in funding in future where we are forced as a city to make huge capital commitments on work that should have been done affordably and incrementally over a number of preceeding years…and out of proper scheduling and alotment of yearly operating budgets…not capital funding.

    This pumphouse funding decision is only the tip of an iceberg of a much greater problem that we have in Calgary…and depending on how the election pans out in October, things could be getting worse depending on who succeeds into the Mayor's chair.

    The politcal grandstanding of certain aldermen to appear 'fiscally prudent', are actually leading us down a short-term garden path for their politcal gain…but leading us as a city to a future filled with greater levels of uncertainty of how we are going to pay for all of our deferred maintenance costs, and fix the problems that we have decided not to deal with.

    I suggest all that all of us take a long hard look at who we want to be sitting in that Mayor's chair in 2010…and who exactly we need in there that is capable and willing to make sustainable and strategic long-term funding decisions.

  • Bob

    DJ,
    Shouldn't the Pumphouse Theatre success be measured by its ability to be self sustaining business practices rather than simple busyness and bookings? If expansion is necessary, shouldn't potential tenants be the financial backers? I have attended hundreds of performances at the space over the past 20 years and very few were sold out and on many occasions there were less than a dozen people in the audience at the Joyce.
    The argument that there are other 'performers' and 'companies' looking for space (or to stroke their own ego) doesn't necessarily mean they are entitled to additional public financial support.

  • Excellent question Bob. My understanding is that supporters of the Pumphouse have, to this point, given approximately $400,000 to the project. It's probably fair to assume the tenants are not-for-profit organizations who's main focus is performing not facility fundraising, so I think that's a decent commitment amount.