By Letter to the Editor on June 10, 2021.
In a June 2 Herald article, councillors Carlson and Campbell make a case for a new Performing Arts Centre (PAC).
I have partaken of the performing arts all of my life. I had a spouse and raised a child both of whom are amateur performing artists. I do not need to be convinced that the performing arts add value to a community, nor that municipal governments should expend funds on recreation and culture projects and programming.
That does not mean that I am compelled to give unthinking and unqualified support to a project of spectacular overreach.
Councillor Carlson says we are the third-ranked city by population in Alberta. So what? Lethbridge has occupied the third (occasionally the fourth) rank for almost the entire history of Alberta.
Since 1960 the population of Lethbridge has nearly tripled, but the populations of Calgary and Edmonton have increased 6.4 and 5.5 times, respectively.
If rank has any persuasive force at all, it was far more powerful an argument in 1960 than it is today.
Our councillors often insist we should think of ourselves and act as a “small Calgary.” Well, what of Calgary and the performing arts? The Alberta government opened the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary in 1957 when the population of that city was already in excess of 200,000. It was and remains the responsibility of the province, and was always intended to serve regional needs. I suspect it will be quite a while yet before Lethbridge reaches that threshold, and in a post-COVID world, it will be a very long time indeed before a provincial government of any stripe makes another such project a priority.
The City of Calgary undertook to build the Calgary Centre for the Performing Arts (since re-branded the Arts Common), an excellent multi-venue facility. It was opened in 1985, when the population of Calgary was 656,000.
In addition to grant funding similar to today’s infrastructure grants, that facility has been the beneficiary of significant corporate donations.
Curious that the PAC Steering Committee never mentions (at least publicly) alternate funding sources.
Calgary subsidizes the operations of the Arts Common (as it should), with an operating grant in its most recent budget of $2.6 million.
As a city one-fifteenth the size of Calgary, might Lethbridge then aspire to a facility requiring an annual operating subsidy of about $173,000 per year? Or recognizing that economies of scale will work in Calgary’s favour, should our aspiration be as much as double, say $350,000 per year?
The annual subsidy for the Yates (pre-COVID, of course) is just a little over $300,000.
Does this help us to decide how Lethbridge should “act” given our population? By contrast, the annual operating shortfall estimated for the new PAC in the current CIP is, I kid you not, $5.45 million. Or put another way, an annual per capita cost to residents of Lethbridge 31 times greater than the annual per capita cost to Calgarians of the Arts Common. This starts to look less like the aspirations of a “small Calgary” and more like the aspirations of a “midsize New York.”
The PAC Steering Committee has oft reported that the Yates is booked to capacity. PAC advocates have said as much for years. Councillor Campbell says that, normally, the Yates is “96 per cent filled during the year.”
It would seem another venue of some kind is warranted. Except that the current council included in the operating budget for 2019-22 special project N-88 (I emphasize pre-COVID).
This was an allocation of $170,000 over two years from the MRSR to the Yates (and a promise to consider a further two years extension), for an initiative to “actively seek out events and bookings to make more effective and efficient use of the space” with a goal to see a “reduction of ‘dark days’.”
Call me stupid, but I just don’t understand how a facility that is and has been booked to capacity for years requires extra funding to seek out bookings and reduce dark days.
I’m naturally inclined to believe that another venue would be nice, so it’s a dilemma – who to believe, the staff that manage the Yates and ask for a special initiative to help book the place, or the two councillors who appear to have a vested interest in a new building?