Response to Editorial: We need action on the smartest solution

It is on the strength of all this work and consultation that we challenge the views expressed.

The following commentary was submitted to the Daily Gleaner in which it was published on November 24. This commentary is in response to an Editorial in the November 20 edition of the same publication.

For years, Fredericton Playhouse Inc. has been working diligently to solve a major community infrastructure problem. The Playhouse needs to be replaced.

We have looked at this situation from every possible angle, consulted extensively with all manner of expertise from structural engineers to community planners. Our due diligence was absolute. It is on the strength of all this work and consultation that we challenge the views expressed in a recent Daily Gleaner editorial, that the $45 million cost of the project is too expensive and should be scaled back to a $12 million renovation. While on the surface that might sound viable, the facts of the matter, as we will point out, show clearly that it is not.

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Not a rushed decision

The existing Playhouse is typical of many buildings built in the 60’s. Look around and you will see many of these vintage buildings that are now in need of renewal or replacement (e.g. the Sir Max Aitken Pool, the Centennial Building, universities, schools and arenas). In short, like many buildings of its time, the Playhouse was not built to last, or even to lend itself to repair. The long list of specific issues with the building is detailed in a video and infographic on the website buildtheplayhouse2.ca.

In short, this option is an expensive way to go backwards. Obviously not a wise use of money.

In 2013, after coming to understand that the present facility was at the end of its useful life, the Playhouse board first considered a refurbishment. That’s where the $12 million figure comes from.

This option was roundly rejected when we discovered what it would give us. An 18-month, multi-million-dollar, high-risk capital project resulting in a theatre with 35 per cent fewer seats and reduced lobby space, this because any renovation would have to meet contemporary building codes. In short, this option is an expensive way to go backwards. Obviously not a wise use of money.

Our next consideration was to refurbish and expand, in order to keep our 700-seat theatre. This would require an 18-month shutdown and nearly $20 million in capital costs that would result in no more than an expensive extension of the current facility’s life -- a facility designed to meet the needs of a city with a population that was less than one third of what it is today. Not the best investment for the long term.

If we’re not prepared to close the Playhouse and remove this critical piece of infrastructure from community life, and we’re not prepared to blow tens of millions of dollars to simply maintain the status quo, what does a smart investment look like?

The answer is a project that will meet both the needs of our growing community and the challenges of a city and province trying to attract skilled workers, healthcare professionals, residents, and business investment by improving our region’s quality of life. We contend that this is the most responsible way forward.

The $45 Million Price Tag

We understand the sticker shock of a $45 million project. But our research and due diligence demonstrate it is the appropriate amount for what we need.

We spent two years researching the needs of the community, how performance venues are constructed and used today, and the projected growth of the city before determining the space requirements. A properly equipped downtown facility with 250-300 seats is a major missing piece in Fredericton, while a somewhat larger theatre is needed to attract marquee shows that are passing us by for larger venues in Saint John, Moncton, Halifax, and Charlottetown.

We spent a great deal of time and effort determining what quality of facility Fredericton could and should have. We determined it should fall somewhere in the middle between low and high end. It should be a facility of which we can be proud, without being extravagant. It should be a facility “appropriate” for Fredericton.

With these two factors established, a $33 million construction cost was determined, based on comparable Canadian projects. Add to this the design, project management, fundraising, site preparation and contingency costs — and an “all-in” $45 million project scope was established.

Regional Support

Yes, 13 municipalities have agreed that a live performance venue is important to our region’s future.

The Gleaner editorial also reiterated the argument that the project lacks regional support, a point MP Matt DeCourcey made in comparing it to the regional support for the airport expansion. We submit there is a big difference in that we were asking for a financial commitment where the airport project didn’t require one cent from any of the regional municipalities. Big difference.

Even though the Playhouse is widely used by non-city residents, we knew asking for a financial contribution was a long shot as small regional governments were never going to name a project in Fredericton as more important than their local needs. So the result, while disappointing, was to be expected. We have seen little evidence anywhere of New Brunswick municipalities truly working together with their outlying communities to develop new cultural or recreational infrastructure.

Regional municipalities did agree though, through the Regional Service Commission, that replacing the Playhouse with a new performing arts centre was very much a regional priority. Yes, 13 municipalities have agreed that a live performance venue is important to our region’s future.

But as long as there lacks an effective structure and system for regional financial cooperation on this kind of project, there will be no easy way for such financial cooperation to emerge. This broken system is a symptom of an urban/rural divide and provincial legislation that lacks the teeth to allow municipalities to make regional political decisions together.

We need action on the smartest solution

There is no “Plan B.” Cheaper solutions are both short-sighted and fiscally irresponsible. We have broad support from the Fredericton City Council, the rural communities, the arts community, and the business community. All appreciate the economic and social benefits and agree this is the only viable option.

We must work together as a community and with all levels of government and get this important project across the finish line.

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Greg MacFarlane is the vice-president of the board of directors of Fredericton Playhouse Inc.