Gauntlet Online: Pumphouse Theatre gets a “rough ride”

By Daniel Pagan

The Pumphouse Theatre is locked in a standoff with the City of Calgary after a committee rejected the local theatre’s bid for an additional $2 million for renovations.

The Pumphouse Theatre is planning a $10.5 million expansion, which would see renovations to two existing theatres, the addition of a 150 seat theatre, a new rehearsal hall and added administrative space. The City of Calgary had committed $2 million to the project in 2006, while Calgary Arts Development recommended an additional $2 million in 2008. However, a few aldermen were alarmed about giving more money, citing a lack of provincial and federal support. Last year, the Alberta government withdrew $5 million from the project due to insufficient funding for capital projects. The federal government’s promised donation of $3 million is up in air.

Pumphouse Theatre Executive Director Scott McTavish explained the theatre “got a rough ride” at the Community and Protective Services Standing Policy committee last April, where the committee was asked to approve the allocation of the additional $2 million dollars as a Municipal Sustainability Initiative eligible project. The project was ultimately rejected.

“What happened at the committee meeting on April 7th to the Pumphouse project was about the upcoming October election and had nothing to do with good governance or sound decision making,” said McTavish. “When aldermen use the term ‘boondoggle’ they are electioneering. There was positioning so that some individuals could be perceived well by the electorate as ‘fiscally responsible’ or ‘holding administration accountable’ or ‘watching the taxpayers dime,’ pick your election slogan and insert here.”

McTavish argued it is the city’s responsibility to fund the project, because they own the property.

“Unlike other civic partners (EPCOR centre, Zoo, Fort Calgary, Heritage Park, TELUS Science Centre) we do not receive annual operating or capital funding direct from the City of Calgary,” said McTavish. “The city owns the building but has never, in the 38 years since the Pumphouse saved it from demolition and restored and renovated the site, have they ever provided any money toward its restoration, additions or upkeep.”

McTavish noted the Pumphouse board would have to consider cancelling the renovations if the city refuses to fund it. He warned it would be hard to elicit support from the federal government and other donors to support the project, if the city is reluctant.

“There is a real future risk that the building will be forced to close due to infrastructure failure,” said McTavish.

Ward 9 alderman Joe Ceci, who sat on the Community and Protective Services Standing Policy committee, was confused by the debate at the committee. He said the City should not pull out of all arts and culture facilities simply because the province did.

“I’m perplexed as to why Pumphouse got a rough ride . . . the City has the money, we dedicated five per cent of the 3.3 Billion in municipal sustainability initiative funds towards arts and culture projects,” said Ceci.

Ceci agreed that a few aldermen were likely quick to oppose the project for political reasons.

“There’s lots of reasons to support this project, I think dissenting aldermen are feeling the sting of being labelled ‘spenders’ by the media and looking for opportunities to show they mean business,” said Ceci. “The Pumphouse project was a handy way to express their fiscally restraining nature.”

The theatre has raised about $324,000 in private donations for its renovation.

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