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Nanaimo councillor calls for theatre cost review

NANAIMO – Coun. Bill McKay says old theatre building could become a money pit and wants council to reconsider further investment

Nanaimo Centre Stage could become a white elephant, according to a city councillor now calling for a ‘hard look’ at future building investment.

Coun. Bill McKay wants the municipality to think twice about whether it’s prepared to spend the money needed to renovate the 100-seat theatre.

While early estimates peg the total renovation cost at $800,000, city staff members warned they won’t know the total expense until they open up the building. They also said there will be ongoing costs to maintain the 118-year-old structure the city purchased in 2008.

The theatre is set to undergo repairs this fall to part of the building with safety issues and recently required a $34,700 injection into a contingency fund – triggering discussion about expenses.

In a 6-1 vote Monday, city council agreed to allow for the extra funding, with some members pointing out that the budget was already approved and repairs are a life-safety issue. But McKay believes the new expense is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of growing costs. He suggests the city explore other venues for theatre groups.

“What we have to consider is that building because we are the ones spending money and spending it foolishly is not the way to go,” McKay said, adding further investment is not prudent.

City staff members asked politicians to approve an increased project budget of $194,700 to repair stucco cladding and brick veneer along one side of the old theatre. It was a move opposed by Jim Taylor, president of the Nanaimo Ratepayers Association, who argued city staff members haven’t yet taken into account seismic upgrades in the total costs of renovations. Taxpayers could easily wind up paying millions for a structure assessed at less than $300,000, he said.

McKay was not present at the council meeting where politicians agreed to increase the project budget, but said he agrees with Taylor and wants city council to review its ongoing investment in Nanaimo Centre Stage. The building could become a “money pit.”

Coun. Bill Bestwick agrees the next step should be looking at the overall direction of Nanaimo Centre Stage, including future expenses.

“It’s estimated that it will be in the neighbourhood of $800,000 to do a retrofit or renovation or rehabilitation of the [building] and we are scratching the surface right now, frankly,” he said. “[The question is] whether we spend those amounts of money on that venue.”

Bestwick, who was on council when the building was originally purchased, said the City of Nanaimo made the decision based on reports, reason and rationale it had at the time. He said in hindsight and from an economic perspective, it was not the wisest investment.