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Arts building future at crossroads

Posted on March 26, 2014 by Taber Times

Town council was firm in its conviction the use and future of the former courthouse, library and police station complex must be decided on before a new lease can be signed between the Arts Council of Taber for the Performing Arts (ACTPA) and the Town of Taber.  

Although voting unanimously at the March 10 meeting to direct administration to negotiate a new lease between the town and ACTPA, and to present a proposed lease to council no later than April 28, 2014, council pointed to serious concerns about the current state and future of the facility that would need to be answered before giving future endorsement.

ACTPA’s failure to keep up with utility costs for the facility had Coun. Laura Ross-Giroux questioning the group’s continued stewardship moving forward.

“When we did the tour with town council, I was really surprised with all of the upgrades that have been done in the past several months since the last time I had been in that building, knowing that they are in arrears on their utility bills to the tune of almost $30,000. I question the wisdom of them continuing to do upgrades when this money is owed to the town. It seems to me their priorities are not facing reality — they shouldn’t be doing this when they owe this amount of money.”

Director of community services Rob Cressman confirmed administration had the same concerns with regard to ACTPA’s continued lease of the facility if these questions were not resolved.

“I think you’ve put your finger on one of the most important issues — probably the main issue — that is a challenge under the current lease agreement.”

The town is the registered owner of the property formerly used as a public library, police station and courthouse. Over the last decade, the town has constructed a police station and library facility on different sites, while the province had earlier constructed a new courthouse at a different location.

Cressman admitted in the past the Town of Taber hadn’t been as actively involved with decisions made with regard to the facility complex as they should have been.

“Over the last year under Greg’s (CAO Birch) direction we are becoming more aware and understanding what they are doing moving forward, and we are now actively involved in, for example, the project that will happen, the upgrades to the door and steps at the courthouse. As the owner, that’s again another valid point is the upgrades and works happening on that building without as much involvement as the owner should have. That is already changing so that we are aware and involved, and authorizing these kinds of changes.”

Through lease agreements between the town and ACTPA in November 2006 and renegotiated in July 2009, ACTPA has occupied the buildings, fundraised, renovated, and redeveloped the building interiors and conducted their business. Despite the substantial efforts of the ACTPA board and volunteers, ACTPA has been unable to complete the renovations necessary as an arts centre for visual and performing arts for the residents of the Town of Taber and district, as originally intended.

“I don’t understand why they’re allowed to do this work without the okay of administration or someone who understands codes, because there’s some huge code issues with that facility,” said Coun. Randy Sparks. “I don’t know that this council or any other council has really made a decision on what the future of this group is. Is this a private group? This should be a community facility, and someone needs to make a decision on what the future of this facility is going to be. A decision needs to be made whether it needs to be a new facility, owned by the Town of Taber, with the same agreement that the now-gymnastics club and the golf course has. Is that the kind of agreement we need to be getting into here? Because if we all of a sudden have all this money, maybe we should be thinking about this.”

Mayor Henk De Vlieger concurred with Coun. Sparks’ assessment, indicating a clear direction would need to be ascertained before any more improvements to the building complex could be considered.

“I think in the past the project has been all over the map. There’s never from day one been a master plan that was followed. I think that’s one of the downfalls. I agree with Coun. Sparks that before we spend any more money, as in the previous motion (to establish a Performing Arts Centre committee), that we’re going to look at what we’re going to do.”

Cressman also referenced the creation of a Performing Arts Centre committee, suggesting its prospective findings could have a profound impact on any new draft lease agreement with ACTPA.

“To that point specifically, in my mind that lease agreement could be structured and reflect that exact concept, and maybe it would change over time, and I think administration would agree that with the striking of that committee, there are many unknowns, and we’d need to be cognizant of that.”

Administration has met with ACTPA president Ray Sheen and the ACTPA board of directors over the past year, and ACTPA recognize the existing lease terms don’t effectively serve the two parties’ interests, and there are terms in the agreement that require reconsideration.

“Maybe we should be looking into the town building this facility, and making sure that it is a community facility,” said Coun. Sparks. “We do need this facility in the town — is this the right place for it? Is the town wasting money putting extra money into this facility and still having an old facility? These are questions I think need to be answered before one more nail gets driven in, before a lease is even thought about. And so we really need to think about this and make a decision. Is this the right place for this facility?”

According to administration, ACTPA has seemingly reached a plateau in terms of fundraising and building renovations, and despite their efforts they have been unable to achieve their vision of a publicly-accessible performing arts facility, and have been unable to meet financial obligations with regard to utility costs.

“I don’t know why we belabour this fact — a decision needs to be made, and it doesn’t matter if the arts council or whoever believes that this is where this needs to be, this town needs to make that decision on what needs to be going on here, and what the future of this facility or this group is,” said Coun. Sparks. “Even members of this group have contacted me and have said that it’s not going to seat enough people. It’s not going to be big enough, and so if we want to have a facility, we need to have a facility that is going to suit the needs of this town for many, many years into the future, just not in the next little while here. We can’t just keep throwing money there and making a new lease when we don’t even know if that’s where it should be.”

Coun. Jack Brewin was even more blunt in his consideration of the value of the building complex.

“I think we’ve got to somehow stop them from spending money on this building right quick, because it’s a waste of money until they do something. Almost a cease and desist order to stop spending money on this thing. Because if we’re going to tear it down or whatever we’re going to do with it — stop throwing the money away.”

Significant financial investments made by donors and upgrades already completed under ACTPA’s proposed Centre Court for the Arts project should be taken into consideration before council considers demolishing a portion of the complex, according to Coun. Rick Popadynetz.

“Just so everyone is aware, a lot of people have put a lot of money and a lot of donations into this building. It is our facility, we lease it to this group, and I would like to see a better direction, and I can agree with all of you on that — we need proper direction from this council, or a new council, to move forward forcibly in 2014.”

In January 2013, the province designated the former courthouse building as a Provincial Historic Resource. This designation has financial and other implications for the town as owner to preserve the historic building, something Mayor De Vlieger noted precluded any consideration of demolishing the entire complex of structures.

Coun. Strojwas was highly critical of the current use of the former courthouse building by ACTPA, and suggested a clear designation would be required before he would support any further lease agreements.

“There still needs to be direction when you’re doing the lease for what that courthouse is going to be designated for. If you’re going to designate it as the Lund Art Gallery, I would support that 100 per cent. But when I looked to see what they had in there, they’ve got a floor and mirrors for kids to do dance and what not, I can’t support something like that. Something that would commemorate our history with that courthouse, like the Lund Art Gallery, then you have a focus, then you can work on the lease for that specific corner for something, but not under its present basis — anyone who had a tour through there should have been totally dismayed, because it requires a lot of work. It’s not functional for anything.”

Coun. Sparks was in favour of considering two separate leases — one for the former courthouse and another for the attached structures — considering the historical status of the former courthouse.

“Is there any possible way those two facilities — the old courthouse and the rest — can have two seperate leases? Because there’s two separate issues there. And the control of the Town of Taber with the old courthouse has been totally taken away by the designation that is on that facility, as a historic site. Anything that needs to be done there, we need to get permission from the provincial government. Unfortunately, we lost control with that designation. And so I think it may be in the town’s best interests to have two seperate leases on those facilities, and not have them tied together. Because our hands are tied. We cannot do anything with that old courthouse, but we certainly can do something with the rest of that facility.”  

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