Duplication, consultation, points of contention for the community centre project

What are some of the controversies of the community centre as the Sept. 12 referendum looms?

In its latest incarnation, the community centre has faced little political opposition. 

Now-mayor Gary Ander has chaired the Community Centre Select Steering Committee nearly since its inception in 2016. Both mayoral candidates in the last municipal election supported the project. 

Despite then-mayor Murray Skeels advising caution when the current design was getting off the ground in 2016 (the project estimate was $10 million at the time), the community centre has passed each approval stage with near (if not complete) unanimity from council.

Today, Skeels supports the proposal his former councilmates have brought to the electors. 

“The old adage that perfect is the enemy of good, that really applies in this case,” said Skeels. “If the government is offering to give us [$8 million] and we turn our noses up at it, it’ll be another 15 or 20 years before our turn comes around again,” he said. “It took us from 2003 to 2021 to get a water treatment plant and the community center is a lot less important than that.” (The community centre grant was the largest in its funding stream of the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program). 

That’s not to say there isn’t opposition to the current proposal. Besides the tax burden, one of the loudest critiques of the proposed centre is the inclusion of municipal hall. 

Though he’s voting yes, former municipal councillor and task force member Peter Frinton doesn’t think the muni should be included.  “You are limiting your options for the future,” said Frinton. “Because you’ve used up that space and that’ll be a space which itself needs to expand.”

A few years ago, the owners of the current municipal hall had offered to sell it to BIM, but council turned down the offer. “It wasn’t an appropriate building,” recalled Skeels. “The thing was built to be a school and then it had an addition put on …it really was a fairly silly building for municipal hall.” 

The non-central location of the current hall on Cates Hill was also a factor in not buying the property said Skeels. 

Frinton thinks they should’ve bought the building. 

Other criticisms from islanders include that they’d like to support a performance hall but don’t want to fund a new municipal hall and that BIM may monopolize shared spaces in the centre.

But Saturday, islanders are voting on a project that includes a municipal hall. BIM chief administrative officer Liam Edwards has said that while it’s technically possible to cleave the hall from the centre and still get the $7.96 million grant (which is specifically for arts and culture infrastructure), the redesigned centre would have to meet the exact outcomes listed in the grant application (including the community use of municipal multi-purpose rooms). A “no” vote would also mean some reckoning with the funders to convince them that the project can gain electors’ support Edwards said in August. 

Another critique of the proposal is that many of the spaces proposed exist in one form or another on the island. “It’s not adding any new amenities for a really big cost,” said islander and parent James Buskard. (Proponents point out that many of these spaces are either not public or booked-up and spatially limited). Buskard also points to a lack of consultation in recent years as a sticking point. “I feel we all found out about this with information session at Bowfest––it was basically an already completed design.

“And so I don’t feel that the process included canvassing and really asking everybody what they want,” said Buskard, suggesting the BIM’s recent short-term rental survey as a more comprehensive model. “We need to be crystal clear that this is what everybody wants, and we have to be able to document that.”

Steve Rio has similar concerns. “People that I’ve talked to don’t feel like they were ever consulted on what’s in this building or does make sense,” he said, noting that a big part of the cost is the performance hall. 

 

New eyes on an old project

Old as the dream is, fresh eyes have come to community centre project recently. 

The two bureaucratic heads of the municipality and the Hearth (Bowen Island Arts Council) respectively have come to Bowen in the months since the pandemic began. Both sit on the select standing committee. (The Hearth is BIM’s leading advisory organization on arts and culture and has a mandate to implement the cultural master plan, which is a BIM bylaw.)

“There is a real, strong need for the community to have a place to go, to share with their community, with their friends, family and there really is no one place here,” said Jami Scheffer, executive director of the Hearth and new islander, having arrived in April

“That’s the one thing that I’m finding about living here is that is it’s hard to meet people because there really is no one place to go to. 

“For a newcomer, I think that this centre would be amazing.”

Scheffer came to Bowen from Invermere where she was executive director of the Columbia Valley Arts Council and where she was involved in rebuilding the town’s old community centre. “I’ve actually gone through this and before I left, the center was open,” she said. She saw about a year’s worth of activity at the centre.  

“More and more and more events came up, like big film festivals in the winter when there wasn’t much to do on a cold day,” said Scheffer. “And then there were more craft fairs and artists’ shows and wild game banquets and murder mystery events.”

“And the funny thing is, people didn’t realize they needed it until they had it,” said Scheffer. 

When it came to researching the Hearth job, the community centre piqued her interest. “I saw that the center was being proposed and thought, ‘Oh, yeah, this is great. I want to be part of that.’”

 

BIM CAO Liam Edwards came to Bowen in May from the provincial government where he oversaw local governments’ finances, worked with communities on their infrastructure needs and was deputy inspector of municipalities.

When asked, Edwards said that this project holds up well to other capital projects he’s been involved in––noting that this one is farther along in the planning than many when they receive funding. 

“And so while it won’t solve everybody’s desires, it is addressing the majority of the community needs––that’s my understanding,” said Edwards. 

Edwards calls the project “social infrastructure.” 

“This is a critical infrastructure to help build and strengthen the social fabric of the community,” he said. 

 

The Undercurrent asked Jacqueline Massey, former executive director of the Hearth who held the reins of the organization for more than a decade, why the community centre has taken so long to reach fruition. 

“We lacked confidence in ourselves as a community,” she wrote in a reflection after the conversation. “The strong commitment to the project and belief that we can (finally) do this has projected us forward. And I do think that was illustrated in our grant application and a major factor in its success.” 

“That has brought us to this point of reckoning. But of course it is now up to the community to take the next crucial step. 

“It’s in the hands of Bowen Islanders.”

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