Referendum reaction: celebration is 30 years in the making

"This has been a long journey and we finally took it over the finish line," says an over-the-moon Paul Hooson. Advocates encourage detractors to have faith in community centre's value

Paul Hooson has known hope and despair in the debate over whether Bowen Island should — or even could — build a performing arts space.

On Saturday night, his hope was rewarded. Island residents voted 64 per cent in favour of borrowing $4-million for the community’s share of a new community centre.

“I could barely contain myself,” he says of his reaction to the positive referendum vote. “I was one of the people who founded the arts council 33 years ago in great measure to get a space for the performing arts. This has been a long journey and we finally took it over the finish line. It's pretty exciting and certainly the performing arts community is just over the moon about it.”

“Relieved would be the key word,” says Shari Ulrich, who has been advocating for a performing arts space for 27 years. A professional musician, she has striven to bring high-calibre arts to Bowen Island, all while recognizing the shortfalls of existing spaces.

Ulrich was deeply and emotionally invested in the result. “I have such a powerful faith that this will be a very healthy, positive thing for the community that, if it had been blocked, I actually felt I'd have to leave — which I don't want to do. I didn't want to live in a community where people didn't want a community centre.”

“It's really quite historic,” Bowen Island mayor Gary Ander, whose 2018 election platform included support for the community centre, said on Sunday. “There were so many bits and pieces hanging on that it really hasn't settled yet…. I'm just so happy and elated that the community has come behind this.”

If he was to judge by his circle of acquaintances, Ander would have predicted a vote 60 to 70 per cent in favour — which is vastly different from other votes that have, almost literally, divided the island in half. However, he was still worried about the outcome.

So were Ulrich and Hooson.

“Negative voices tend to pick up a lot more space than positive ones,” Ulrich says. “There were a few very vocal people on Facebook and that had me worried. I was so surprised that something so positive for the community could be reacted to so negatively. It made me have doubts.”

“I think we were all worried last week,” Hooson says, “because there was a lot of criticism leveled at it [on social media platforms]…. I was definitely surprised [by the 64 per cent] but not overwhelmingly so because I believe that by including the three major stakeholders — recreation, culture and the municipality — we had three demographics pulling strongly for the same goal. I thought ‘We've been so close in the past, I think this one's going to put us over the top.’ I figured it was going to be Bowen Island’s 49/51 per cent split again.”

One of the people who spoke out against the community centre as proposed was Steve Rio. “I’m pro community centre and increasing taxes for the right centre,” he says. However, he felt that there wasn’t enough information about budget specifics and that people were being told to vote “yes” in large part because the federal grant was too much of a golden opportunity to pass up.

Although discussion about the performing arts centre has been ongoing for decades, Rio says that one-third of residents moved to Bowen Island within the past five years. They needed more information and more consultation about they would like to see in such a major investment.

“All I was told was that the lion’s share [of the budget was for a] performance hall,” he says. “For the price of that building we can do a lot of things. I just really want the community to have a chance to get what they need. This is a one-time shot; [given land restrictions] expanding it in the future won’t be easy. “

For someone who has been advocating for a performing arts space for three decades, Hooson has what can be described as explanation fatigue. “You get pretty tired of answering those questions over and over and over again for 25 years,” he says. “Every time a new council comes in, you've got to go in and answer the same questions. Every time newcomers come to the island, four years later you're answering the same questions.”

He understands why there were community concerns about the design plan but also believes firmly that the design had to meet the needs of the performing arts community who have brought the project to this stage. “It's not a perfect plan but there was a quote in the paper last week about perfection being the enemy of getting things done. And it's true…. This required compromise and cooperation and that's what that's what got us through. That said, I think the design is pretty darn good.”

Ulrich also recognizes that, in some ways, the debate was between people who had been on the island for a long time not wanting to see the best-chance opportunity slip away versus people who were newer to the island and wanted more input.

To those who voted no, she urges patience. “Have faith in it being able to meet the community's needs,” she says.

Jacqueline Massey is the former executive director of the Bowen Island Arts Council (now The Hearth.) She, too, has been working on the project for decades and sees its current iteration as being very beneficial to everyone on the island, including young families. When she was raising her three children, there were very few options of where to take them on wet, cold days and she would have loved the opportunities that the community centre will provide.

For those who think the community centre won’t fulfill their needs, all dreams need a foundation.

“We kept the vision and we kept our eye on the ball,” she says of how the community centre plan finally prevailed. “We just kept working on working and working. So I really encourage people [who want things that the community centre won’t provide] to do that. They will succeed. That's the secret — you’ve got to put the work in.”

Hooson is optimistic that once people see how the building can be adapted to suit various needs, the community will fully embrace it, just like they did the artificial turf field, which was highly controversial when first proposed.

“The first step is the biggest step and this is a huge step we just took,” Hooson says.


Martha Perkins is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.


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