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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Comedy tonight

At last Wednesday’s Finance and Administration Committee meeting the long awaited agreement between the City and Fanshawe College respecting the city’s financial contribution to the development of a downtown School of Applied and Performance Arts was presented to the committee members. Since the agreement was “walked in” at the last moment, committee members had no opportunity to examine it before the meeting. Accordingly, they deferred it to a special meeting prior to Monday night’s council.

For anyone who has been following this issue, the outcome of the discussion should come as no surprise. The committee and subsequently the council endorsed the $20M commitment to the project to be paid over 15 years, but not without reservations and outright hostility by some councillors to the project.

The idea has been buzzing around council for several years now, partly as an alternative to failed efforts to kick-start a performing arts centre and partly to take advantage of the economic value of our post-secondary institutions. And all within the context of what to do to revitalize our downtown.

Then along came the federal and provincial governments with offers of dollars for infrastructure to stimulate our local economy during the recession. Projects previously scheduled a few years down the road suddenly got done right away and cost the city one-third of their original price. That freed up some money, money that the feds said couldn’t be used for a tax cut, only for investing in our economic future.

A lot of projects were put forward as part of the New Economy but this was the one dearest to my heart as it brought together education, the arts, downtown revitalization and heritage preservation in one neat package. The concept received unanimous support from the past council, even those like Paul VanMeerbergen, Bill Armstrong and Steve Orser who now oppose it.

What was proposed was the creation of a downtown campus for programs relating to the arts including theatre arts, costume design and theatre technical programs. The School was to bring 1,000 net new students to the downtown for classes housed in renovated heritage buildings. Partnerships could be developed with Orchestra London and the Grand Theatre. There would be feet on the street and spinoffs to the tune of $80M and 2,200 jobs in addition to the 75 faculty positions.

The city’s role would be to provide up to $10M for the renovation of heritage buildings that would be purchased by the college. It sounded too good to be true.

And so it was. Soon after approving the $10M for heritage building renovations, council was urged by the London Economic Development Council to provide another $10 for economic development generally, unrelated to heritage. That too was approved although a little less enthusiastically.

Then came the 2010 election. In the wake of it, a new group of councillors took office, many of whom had little or no knowledge of what had been planned. It was back to square one.

In March, Fanshawe College presented its proposal. But rather than being met with overwhelming enthusiasm as its administrators had anticipated (after all, wasn’t it the city that had initiated this in the first place?), some hard (and a few silly) questions were being asked.

The biggest stumbling block was the lack of provincial government participation. The provincial government is responsible for capital and operating funding of educational institutions. Why had it not ponied up some money?

The proposal included a $6M ask from the province but the College had not received a commitment. College president Howard Rundle was (and remains) convinced that the province will come through eventually, although he suggested that “given the state of the economy, and given where they are at right now”, it may take a while. With a multiyear project, “[the money] always comes later” has been his experience. However, if it doesn’t come soon, the decision may be up to an entirely new government following a fall election.

In any case, the problem of where to get the rest of the money for the project estimated at about $40M is not a concern for the city, Dr. Rundle insisted. That’s the College’s responsibility. It will provide some from its own savings and fundraise the remainder. Since the city will provide money only after a building is acquired, and only to the tune of $1.5M per year, there will be plenty of opportunity for the city to be protected in the event of failure through clauses in the agreement dealing specifically with such an eventuality.

Another major impediment is the spectre of land speculation. Rumours abounded even before the previous council had approved a grant for heritage retrofit that prices were going up dramatically as landowners in the downtown anticipated making a killing. At the March meeting, Ward 14 Councillor Sandy White wanted to know which properties and landowners were in play. She repeated that demand at council on Monday evening. When the answer was not forthcoming, she replied that since Dr. Rundle did not seem to have that information, staff should provide it. She was reminded that real estate deals are generally confidential.

To get around the problem of greedy landowners, the staff report contemplates the possibility of expanding the area designated as “downtown” thereby increasing the number of potential properties in the competition. White wanted to know if that might include the Soho district (south of Horton). She was advised the point of city funding was to focus on the downtown. Apparently not having heard this, Ward 4 Councillor Steve Orser wanted to know if downtown might extend east of Adelaide into his ward. Since that had not been contemplated, he declined to support the project.

No one mentioned London’s biggest landlord, Shmuel Farhi. He has generally been more interested in leasing than selling but his participation in one way or another would seem to be inevitable. He has been known to sell if the price is right. When it comes to real estate deals, he would be the undisputed master.

The other issue regarding the acquisition of properties is what is meant by a heritage building. For the purposes of the agreement, any building erected before 1950 qualifies as does any building on the City’s list of priority heritage buildings. That’s an unusual and somewhat arbitrary definition to say the least.

Finally, there were concerns about the actual number of jobs to be created. In the original proposal, 75 full-time faculty were contemplated. That soon became 75 full-time staff. In the report to council, this became 75 full-time equivalents.

That is an important distinction. At present, the theatre program at the CitiCentre (former Galleria) has 100 students but only one full-time staff position; everyone else is part-time. While some part-time jobs may be desirable to meet specialties and provide flexibility, it is full-time permanent jobs that provide stable economic growth for the city. Fanshawe has a track record of employing far too many part-timers at the expense of full-time jobs. If the city wants to sponsor real economic growth, it should insist on some provisions in the agreement in this regard.

However, that issue, although briefly raised by Ward 3 Councillor Joe Swan at the FAC meeting, was not pursued, not even by White who is a member of OPSEU by virtue of her full-time employment, the same union that represents Fanshawe College faculty which raised its concerns in a brief to council. She did, however, express concerns about lack of parking downtown and pointed out that she had “a lot of emails that it’s not all positive. Let's be clear, not everybody sees the downtown as being exciting with students.” Nevertheless, she supported the proposal.

There was another worry expressed by one councillor. Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson was concerned about the lack of a stage in the proposal. Where would performances be held? It was pointed out that there are at least four stages in the downtown that are under-utilized.

Henderson can also be credited with the most unusual criticism of the evening: why isn’t the CBC kicking in money for this project?

And perhaps the Post Office could throw in a dollar or two.

In the end, all supported the agreement with the exception of Councillors Armstrong, Swan, Orser, Denise Brown and VanMeerbergen.

And, one would suppose, the CBC.


Anonymous said...

Ah, where would we be without Sandy for comic relief. Our very own Mrs. Malaprop!

anon one

Anonymous said...

What is Joe Swan doing among that sorry lot?

ChrisD said...

It has always amused me how easily eveyone banters about taxes from one level of government or another. We are the same tax payers whether the taxes come from the Federal Government or the Provincial Government, the Municipal Governement or >>>>wait for it....user fees. While we all focus on zero percent and a possible cut in services; we will find ourselves payig one way or the other. We have to decide and clearly state to our elected officials what we really want. Nothing is free. There is a cost to everything. I agree that we can have effciencies, but I doubt that we can continue to have zero increases without deteriorating roads, burst water pipes and severe environmental issues.

We need to phone or email our politicians and tell them what is acceptable or not. No campaign is a single issue. There are many reasons we vote people into or out of office. Being in power is not a carte blanche mandate.

Anonymous said...

I watched on TV as Fanshawe College President Rundle becoming testy under pesky questioning from Councillors who wanted their concerns dealt with before committing 20 million taxpayers' dollars to the downtown project. Poor Howie is not used to that kind of scrutiny, but more accustomed to tough questions from the unelected Fanshawe Board like, "Can you please tell us again, Dr. Rundle, just how wonderful everything is at the college?" and "Are you SURE that's a big enough raise for you this year, Dr. Rundle?"

You raised a good point about the lack of a college commitment to full time jobs, Gina. Teaching friends at Fanshawe tell me that under Rundle's lengthy regime as president, (Is it true that he is president for life?) he has shown great zeal for building but little for the quality of programs offered in the new buildings.Under Howie, the percentage of part-time teaching McJobs has grown exponentially. He shows no concern for the loss of full-time co-ordinators and teachers who patiently, over many years, built the quality of the better programs at the college.

The city would indeed be smart to demand full-time job commitments.

Life Long Learner