Sunday, April 10, 2011

Meewasin Valley Authority abandon interest in Mendel Art Gallery building for new home; concerns include cost, control and controversy

In a surprising move, the Meewasin Valley Authority has for the time being withdrawn its interest in moving its operations to the Mendel Art Gallery after it is vacated in 2014.

The decision, made at a meeting of the Meewasin board on February 4, 2011, could be reviewed if the participating parties (City of Saskatoon, Province of Saskatchewan and University of Saskatchewan) decide at some point to increase both Meewasin’s statutory revenue and provide resources toward capital improvements.

The main reasons for the decision are cost, control and controversy.

According to a memorandum from CEO Susan Lamb and director of operations Gwen Charman to the Meewasin board dated February 4, 2011, the organization’s current operating budget is $122,000.

“This is extremely tight,” the document says. “It is impossible for us to continue at our current service levels unless we receive a significant increase in revenue tied to inflation.”

Lamb and Charman “anticipate” operating costs at the Mendel could be nearly $600,000 leaving an unfunded operating deficit of about $480,000.

“This does not include any increased marketing for an out-of-the-way location or increased staffing for special events needed to attract visitors.”

The potential loss of autonomy is a big concern.

Meewasin owns its current building and pays no rent or lease costs. This would not be the case at the Mendel site, where city council has decided the city will maintain ownership.

“[W]e have very specific needs that are most easily met when we own our own building. If we cannot meet our needs, there is no point in pursuing the project,” Lamb and Charman said.

There is also fear that any deal could become a political football, generating negative coverage.

“We lose control of the discussion as others hold the Open Houses etc. our fundraising analysis shows that controversy would be the death of any fundraising campaign,” Lamb and Charman said.

“We have completed a fundraising analysis with potential donors split virtually down the middle on the option of staying in the current site or moving to the Mendel. Our analysis showed that Meewasin could raise $4.5 million in a fundraising campaign. Donors told us the campaign would be successful only if there is a minimum of controversy about the decision.”

It’s also noted that competition for the Mendel building through the city’s expressions of interest process sets up “winners” and “losers” in the community.

“Anticipation of our interest has already meant we are excluded from the Kinsmen Park master planning steering committee. As this is a major addition to the Meewasin Valley, the fact that we cannot be part of the discussion is unfortunate to say the least.”

Preliminary discussions with representatives of the Government of Canada have revealed that “there is little likelihood of federal funding until at least 2015.” Meewasin’s plan, on any site, “would need to see additional capital from municipal, provincial, federal and private donors to complete the project.”

“Given the risks,” Lamb and Charman said they could not recommend that Meewasin participate in the EOI for the Mendel building “at this time.”

Actually, what the city issued was a call for ideas not an EOI. The deadline for submissions was February 23, 2011. The ideas received were scheduled to be reviewed by the executive committee at a closed-door meeting on March 14, 2011. The city will invite up to two candidates to submit detailed business plans.

What’s puzzling is that Meewasin waited so long to pull the plug. The organization’s expansion plans have been on hold since April 3, 2009, when the city and Mendel board announced plans to move the art gallery to River Landing. Lamb has known for more than a year that the move would result in a tight fit and higher operating costs.

In an interview with the StarPhoenix on Feburary 11, 2010, Lamb said a preliminary estimate showed that renovating the Mendel for the MVA’s purposes would cost $10 million, compared to an estimated $11 million to $12 million to build a new 28,000-square-foot interpretive centre at the current spot in the former Rothman’s building in Friendship Park.

The costs to operate year-to-year would also be increased substantially, she said.

The Mendel building, constructed in 1964, requires significant renovations to the heating and mechanical systems and space remains an issue, Lamb said.

“We would fit over there, but just barely,” Lamb said.

Lamb also said a fundraising drive wouldn’t begin until a decision was made on whether to stay in the south downtown or move downstream. [MVA in holding pattern on interpretive centre (StarPhoenix, February 12, 2010)]

Thanks to the city, Meewasin has lost at least 22 months.

Controversy will follow the Mendel no matter what Meewasin does.

The only reason the building is available is because the gallery’s board and city council stabbed the Mendel family in the back at two closed-door meetings in early 2009. On March 14 the Mendel board passed a resolution to pursue the construction of a new gallery at River Landing. The city’s executive committee approved the plan in principle on March 23. Both decisions were the culmination of secret discussions and back room dealing involving the provincial and federal governments. The public, Mendel family and gallery donors were never consulted.

The despicable decisions were made for two reasons: the availability of federal Building Canada funds and the city’s desperate need for a year-round attraction at the troubled, cost-plagued River Landing development.

The Meewasin board was briefed on the Mendel situation at an in-camera meeting on April 3, 2009, a few hours before the official announcement.

No sooner had the ink dried on the betrayal than Meewasin shamelessly stepped in to ‘stake claim’ to the building.

On April 7, 2009, the StarPhoenix reported that Meewasin administrators were already investigating a possible relocation; and, that all four city councillors on the Meewasin board (including Mayor Don Atchison) were in favour of moving to a vacated Mendel Art Gallery.

“If it had been orchestrated, it couldn’t have been done any better,” Coun. Darren Hill, a member of the Meewasin board said. “I’m 100 per cent behind moving into the Mendel location. . . . It’s got adequate parking, the interpretive area, a gift shop, the civic conservatory will get to stay. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

Moving into the Mendel site would save money and ensure the building doesn’t sit empty, Hill told reporter David Hutton.

The present building would likely be demolished if the MVA moves out, Hill said. [MVA eyes Mendel site (StarPhoenix, April 7, 2009)]

In deciding not to submit a proposal, the Meewasin board has likely avoided a major headache. Any process involving the organization relocating to the Mendel would be seen as a complete sham.

Often seen as a rubber-stamp body for city council’s schemes, the MVA already suffers from credibility problems.

Meewasin, a conservation agency, is mandated to protect the natural and heritage resources of the Meewasin Valley, which includes the south downtown. Sadly, it sat on the sidelines when the historic Gathercole and Legion buildings were torn down. It was silent when city council on December 6, 2010, voted in favour of demolishing and replacing the 103-year-old Traffic Bridge. And earlier this year when a stand of 80-year-old American elm trees on River Landing Parcel “Y” were cut down to make room for future development, it looked the other way.

The last thing Meewasin needs is the added burden of being associated with destroying the late Fred Mendel’s legacy.

MVA memorandum dated February 4, 2011
(Received April 6, 2011, as part of an access to information request)

Preliminary estimates prepared by MVA staff
(Received Nov. 2010 as part of an access to information request)


At 9:49 AM, Blogger XM301 said...

Good work, Joe.


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