Election 2014: candidates critique theatre expansion

A new city council will decide how and if a studio theatre project moves forward, if it fails to meet its fundraising goal.

A $4.6-million funding promise for a new studio theatre has landed in the crosshairs of two mayoral candidates this election, who say they would propose nixing the dollars if they win the seat.

The Port Theatre Society is updating design plans for a new community performing arts centre and moving into a fundraising phase in the wake of a $4.6-million funding commitment by Nanaimo city council in September. But the city’s share for the 19,000-square foot studio theatre has its opponents, including two mayoral candidates who want to see the commitment pulled back. Other election contenders support the project if the Port Theatre can fundraise the remaining share of the project cost.

According to Chris Sholberg, the city’s culture and heritage planner, a new city council can do anything it likes with previously made decisions, but he believes the ball is currently in the court of the Port Theatre Society. The organization has been tasked with raising its $8-million share of the small-performance theatre by the end of 2015 and he believes the project will be a go or no go based on the results. If the goal isn’t met, it may require the new council to review whether the commitment still stands, if there’s willingness to come up with a new arrangement or call it a day on the project, he said.

With the fate of $12-million studio theatre in the hands of new leadership, the News Bulletin asked a handful of mayoral and council candidates where they stand on the issue.

Mayoral hopefuls Gary Korpan and Al Thompson said they would propose to claw back the $4.6 million if elected. Korpan says frivolous spending needs to stop and this would be a good example off the start, adding for most taxpayers it’s not a high priority. He says if Port Theatre staff do see the project as a priority, they should find funding other than the Nanaimo taxpayers’ wallet.

Thompson said there are enough theaters and another isn’t needed at this time.

“We have millions of things we could spend that money on rather than another damn theatre,” he said, listing food for “the young ones” and cheaper housing. “I go to the theatre, but this is just crazy spending.”

The partnership has its supporters, including incumbent councillor Fred Pattje. He calls rehearsal space and a “decent smaller theatre” essential to the pillar of cultural vitality in the new strategic plan and a good opportunity. People can forget, or have trouble realizing how important arts and culture are to the community and that it needs to be sustained, he said, also noting the city will seek grants to offset its contribution. He also said while there’s no reason to think the society won’t reach its goal, “the bottom line is … they don’t come up with the eight million bucks, the deal is off.”

Holdom said he wouldn’t want the city to be on the hook for the whole project, but the funding contribution is something he can support if the society is able to raise its portion of the funds. He likes the idea of local dollars attracting outside funding and said it’s time for an expansion, pointing to the growth of the city and an increase in the level of performances the Port Theatre is able to attract.

“It all depends on the new council and how well they think we can manage our contribution there, but it would seem timely at the very least to have that new facility,” he said.

Council candidate Tali Campbell said it’s good to see the city and its council directing more funding toward arts and culture. He would not challenge the financial contribution and would support the theatre’s effort to generate its portion of the building cost.

Fundraising hasn’t launched yet and the project is already seeing donations, and “to me that shows your community is behind you,” he said.