Monday, September 28, 2009

River Landing cost hits $135-million; Mayor Don Atchison’s comments insulting to Mendel family; public misled on new art gallery being “shovel ready”

$135.6-million and counting…

With the September 23, 2009, announcement that the new destination centre at River Landing will cost $58-million, that’s how much public money has been blown so far on the city’s riverbank development project since 2003.

The Art Gallery of Saskatchewan is expected to be the new building’s anchor tenant and will share the space with several other organizations to be named later.

Attending the press conference at Persephone Theatre was the Conservative MP for Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, Kelly Block, Municipal Affairs Minister Jeremy Harrison and Saskatoon Mayor Don Atchison.

The funding breakdown for the new centre is as follows:

– Government of Canada: $13-million
– Government of Saskatchewan: $13-million
– City of Saskatoon: $17-million
Mendel Art Gallery: $8-million through fundraising
City of Saskatoon: $7-million for underground parkade

$46-million of this is new public money. Added to the $89.6-million that’s already been spent or committed to the project the total cost of River Landing now stands at $135.6-million.

The funding announcement came on the eve of next month’s civic election. And in what appears to be an unprecedented move city council is shutting down for seven weeks immediately following its September 28 meeting and won’t reconvene until November 16. Unless a special meeting is called Saskatoon residents will have no opportunity to address their elected officials in council chambers on this or any other issue during that time.

Being sacrificed for the mayor’s expensive legacy is the nationally recognized Mendel Art Gallery which will be stripped of its name and moved to River Landing. However, there is an alternative.

According to the city’s 2009 capital budget the gallery can be expanded and renovated for $24-million. The Mendel’s ten-year capital plan addresses both the existing facility needs and the required capacity to see it through the next 30 to 40 years of operation.

On January 8, 2009, the mayor and Mendel board chair Art Knight sent a letter to then Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport Minister, Christine Tell, telling her that the expansion and renovation of the Mendel was a “worthy and important project” and that they were “confident” it “will be successful.” Yet less than three months later those plans were suddenly abandoned. The public was told that the gallery and city had somehow, almost overnight, outgrown them.

Unveiled on April 3, 2009, the plan to move the publicly owned gallery was developed and decided in secret. The public, Mendel family, gallery donors and supporters were completely shut out of the process. The issue was never debated at a public meeting of city council.

In a letter to Mendel board chair Art Knight on March 30, 2009, which was obtained through a freedom of information request, Mayor Atchison advised that at a meeting held March 23, 2009, the city’s executive committee — which is composed of all members of council with the mayor sitting as chair — discussed the Mendel board’s March 14, 2009, resolution to pursue the construction of a new gallery at River Landing. The executive committee passed the following resolution:

1) That the Executive Committee approve in principle, a new art gallery as the anchor facility at River Landing Destination Centre;

2) that the Administration continue discussions with representatives of the Saskatoon Gallery and Conservatory Board of Directors and senior levels of government to secure funding for the new gallery; and

3) that the Administration, through the Destination Centre Steering Committee, report back to the Executive Committee, regarding the concept design for the destination site, magnitude of capital costs, and annual operating budget costs and proposed funding sources.

The executive committee and Mendel board meetings were conducted in-camera. The agendas and minutes for both are closed to the public.

It’s interesting to note that city administration was asked to “continue discussions” with the senior levels of government. This means that discussions about the project were already taking place without the public’s knowledge. What is not known is when they first began.

The resolution also confirms that the Destination Centre Steering Committee has been kept in the loop as well.

City Council, at its meeting held on January 14, 2008, approved a planning and consultation process for the development of the Destination Centre for River Landing that included establishing a volunteer steering committee. According to an administrative report: “The Committee shall be tasked by Council to make a recommendation on a preferred outline concept for the Destination Centre including uses, size, capital cost and potential funding sources, preliminary operating costs, how the Centre should be operated, and an implementation schedule. The Committee should complete this work within four months of its inception and provide a progress report to Council once a month.”

On April 7, 2008, city council appointed 13 individuals to serve on the committee including Mendel board chair Art Knight. The committee meets in secret and is thirteen months behind schedule. None of its reports or updates has ever been made public.

The mayor’s response to criticism about all the secrecy is that he just doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks.

“Everyone has their own point of view,” Atchison is quoted as saying in the September 24, 2009, StarPhoenix article Funds aid art gallery.

“A lot of decisions are made which people don’t agree with. . . . The bottom line is that you can’t please everyone all the time and some people just won’t be satisfied regardless of the outcomes.”

Atchison has also managed to insult the gallery’s namesake, the late Fred Mendel.

The mayor hinted to reporters after the press conference that the new gallery might not be called the Art Gallery of Saskatchewan. The naming rights could be sold to a corporation.

“Those things we will cross later,” Atchison said. “But I have to tell you: in the past, for example. We have the SaskTel Sports Centre, we have the Shaw Aquatic Centre as well. We have other things that are named like that today.”

During Atchison’s tenure as mayor at least two prominent civically owned buildings have underwent name changes in exchange for private sector money: Centennial Auditorium in November 2005 (now TCU Place) and Saskatchewan Place in May 2004 (now Credit Union Centre).

It seems all the mayor had to say about the Mendel Art Gallery is that it was named after “an individual who put monies forward” and that the name “would have some place in the new gallery.” [Funds pledged for $51M Saskatoon art gallery (CBC News, September 23, 2009)]

Talk about ungrateful.

Along with the funding announcement also came the realization that the public might have been misled about the new gallery’s shovel readiness.

On April 3, 2009, Atchison said the project was “ready to go.” The news release said, “Shovels can be in the ground constructing the first phase of the project – a 250-stall underground parking structure – this year.”

Just two weeks prior Atchison sent a letter (dated March 18, 2009) to Saskatoon Conservative MP and Minister of State for Western Economic Diversification, Lynne Yelich, requesting her office’s assistance in moving through the federal government’s funding approval process. Attached to the letter was a two-page summary stating, in part: “The functional plan for Art Gallery/support area to be completed early fall 2009, construction drawings completed winter 2010, facility tender spring 2010, construction complete by fall 2012. Construction of the underground parking to begin in fall 2009.”

However, in an interview on September 23, 2009, Atchison changed his tune telling the StarPhoenix that construction wouldn’t begin until 2011, following the architectural design of the structure, and is scheduled for completion in 2014. [Funds aid art gallery (StarPhoenix, September 24, 2009)]

A federal government news release said the financial support for the project will be provided through the Building Canada Fund – Major Infrastructure Component.

According to the Building Canada website the federal government’s economic action plan is meant to speed up project funding “and cut red tape to ensure infrastructure funding gets into the economy when it is most needed – in the 2009 and 2010 construction seasons.”

The 2011 start date violates the intent of the Building Canada plan.

Contacted on September 25, 2009, the city’s special projects manager confirmed the 2011 start date noting that administration will be asking council for more money in December as part of the 2010 capital budget process. A request for proposals for an architect could be issued in January. The mayor’s original timeline appears to have been unrealistic at best.

In stark contrast are the long-planned expansion and renovation plans for the Mendel that could’ve been well underway by now.

On January 6, 2009, board chair Art Knight and gallery CEO Vincent Varga posted an open letter on the Mendel website saying that the project was “shovel ready” and “can be tender ready by March of this year.”

Atchison’s letter to Yelich is significant for one other reason. It included a second attachment, a copy of the four-page brochure that was distributed at the April 3 press conference. The brochure indicates that the federal government, along with the city, province and Mendel, had “come to the conclusion” that “a new building is the best fit” for Saskatoon.

This is important because it establishes that the decision by the four partners to pursue a new gallery was made well before April 1 when the StarPhoenix first reported details about the new project. A reporter for the newspaper made an inquiry to Infrastructure Canada asking whether the new gallery would qualify for funding under the Building Canada program. Department officials subsequently told the StarPhoenix that not only would the new gallery be potentially eligible but so would the expansion previously proposed for the Mendel. Thanks to Atchison’s letter to Yelich we now know that was untrue and that the newspaper was seriously misinformed.

And finally, the StarPhoenix is reporting Mendel CEO Vincent Varga as saying that the collection of 13 paintings by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries from Fred Mendel’s private collection will be given a prominent display in the new gallery.

The paintings were donated by Mr. Mendel in a ceremony held at the gallery on June 17, 1965. John Climer, the gallery’s first curator-director from 1963 to 1979, accepted the “gift from the Mendel family, to hold in trust.” [Mendel presents 13 outstanding paintings to art centre (StarPhoenix, June 18, 1965)]

That trust has been betrayed. The honourable thing to do would be for Varga and Mayor Atchison to return the paintings to the Mendel family along with a letter apologizing for their disgraceful behaviour.

Previous Mendel posts

September 14, 2009:
Western Economic Diversification email suggests backroom deal between city and Mendel board to move gallery; StarPhoenix hypocrisy stunning

August 26, 2009:
Mendel Art Gallery: City of Saskatoon incorporates Art Gallery of Saskatchewan without public debate or input

August 21, 2009:
‘I assure you for all time, this centre will be good’: Fred Mendel; Federal gov’t stalling, breaking law on FOI requests; Province withholding records

July 19, 2009:
Mendel expansion and renovation ‘worthy and important’: Atchison & Knight; Infrastructure Canada violates federal law; MVA won’t release CEO reports

June 21, 2009:
Mendel Art Gallery: City of Saskatoon and Saskatchewan Tourism, Parks, Culture, and Sport refusing to disclose records on proposed new gallery

May 13, 2009:
Meewasin Valley Authority refusing to release CEO reports; board votes behind closed doors to investigate possible move to Mendel Art Gallery site

April 26, 2009:
Mendel Art Gallery rejects freedom of information request, refuses to disclose records; federal government part of covert plan to move gallery

April 8, 2009:
Meewasin move to Mendel site revives aborted 2005 plan; Lamb & Knight serve on secretive River Landing destination centre steering committee

April 6, 2009:
Mendel Art Gallery: Mayor Don Atchison and Board of Trustees hypocrisy and betrayal appalling; gallery move planned in near total secrecy


At 9:34 PM, Blogger Cathie from Canada said...

Well, personally I don't see a problem with moving the Mendel to a more central location, though I think the name should continue to be the Mendel rather than something bland. Right now the Mendel is too far away from the downtown, and its hard to reach, particularly for people without a car. Within River Landing, it would be a more integral part of the city's cultural life. I haven't heard what the plan is for the existing location, but I haven't been following this story as closely as you have.

At 12:01 AM, Blogger Imre said...

I disagree. The location is easily accessible to anyone willing to take a short walk from 25th street down by the river. I live far away from the gallery itself but I still make it a point to make that trip every month to see new shows. It does not need to be near downtown to be enjoyed by many and the surrounding greenspace is a lot more nicer looking than Atch's concrete jungle in the South Downtown.

At 8:09 AM, Blogger Dewdney said...

Amazing they've spent $135 Million without getting a penny back!

I can't believe they never even got paid for the lot before pouring that much tax payer money into it!!

Saskatoon is like Shelbyville/Springfield and elevator to no where etc.

No wonder Saskatchewan has a huge deficit and another one expected for next year... but NO childrens hospital.


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