Performing Arts Centre board appears on stage; no kudos, no applause but a lot of questions.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  February 26, 2013  This time the Board members showed up.  This time they did the talking and didn’t leave their Executive Director to carry the flag by herself.  This time the two Board members said they are a start-up and that many of the numbers they used in their original rosy projections were short of the mark.  This time they apologized – well sort of.  This time they said they would talk to council members and do a business review well before budgets were being considered.   And this time they said that if the projections they had on the table today didn’t come true – they probably wouldn’t be the people appearing before the council next time around.

Keeping the lights on – and putting bums in the seats.

It was a healthy and very welcome change by a Board that has been high-handed and close to insolent to a council that very much wants them to succeed.

Today was budget delegation day and most, if not all of the Boards that are funded by the city, appeared before the Budget and gave it their best shot.  Some, the Burlington Economic Development Corporation (BEDC)  were there arguing for a stay of execution while the Library Board argued for the funding needed to pay for the staff needed to operate the new library in the Alton Village.

We will cover those budget requests in separate articles.

Richard Burgess, current vice chair of the Burlington Performing Arts Centre board explained why the Centre needs significant funding for at least the next three years.

Rick Burgess,  a former city mayoralty candidate, he was beaten out by Cam Jackson in 2006, a lawyer by profession and currently the vice chair of the Burlington Performing Arts Centre incoming chair of the organization along with Peter Ashmore, treasurer with many years of experience in the management of assets and the development of new enterprises.

It was difficult to get a handle on exactly what the Performing Arts Centre wanted in terms of real cash.  Councillor Taylor, who was chairing this meeting of the Budget and Corporate Services committee, complained about data being given to him the day before the delegation was to appear.  The real numbers will come out during the debate that will take place on Thursday.

It was clear that rentals was the biggest problem – the team just wasn’t able to rent out as much space as they had planned.  And, their original rosy projections, based on a consultant’s report turned out to be weak.

The Board directed management to cut back and that meant events that might have been put on were not put on which weakened the revenue stream.

It is now evident that there was a bit of panic going on as the Board struggled to get a handle on how it could support management – but all this was behind the scenes.

What was evident, clearly evident, was a council that did not want this venture to fail but found itself with not nearly enough information and basically out of the loop while the Board went its own way.

To say Burgess and Ashmore were somewhat contrite but fully aware that a newer more collaborative relationship was needed would be a stretch.  Just what they took away from the meeting is not clear – but know this – things are different.

Most disturbing is that Mayor Goldring and Councillor Craven sit on that Board and should have been fully aware of the problems and how severe they were.  The rental situation is one that they had to be aware of – does management not give the Board a report every month on how many events took place and how many seats were sold?  If they aren’t doing this – then this city has a major problem on its hands with the Performing Arts centre.

If the information was made available to the Board and the two city representatives did not convey this to their council colleagues – well that`s a pot with a lot of flame underneath it that is going to boil over at some point.

Councillor Dennison, who always brings his business acumen to budgets wanted to see the people on the marketing side given base salaries and then bonused for the added business they bring in.  Ashmore didn’t think they could pull this off with the staff in place now; truth be told, he didn’t appear to have any appetite for taking aggressive steps.

Some wondered if raising the ticket price would do the trick.  Burgess explained two fundamentals which council members did not appear to appreciate.  Upping the price of tickets for commercial events will increase revenue but it will also reduce the number of people who attend.

What isn’t as clear as it could and should be is this.  Does the city have a situation where they are dealing with what Peter Ashmore called a start-up that is having its teething problems or are there some fundamental problems with the business plan.

I suspect Ashmore isn’t certain as to just what it is yet and if the treasurer doesn`t know – then the Board members are a little adrift.  That`s not to suggest Ashmore isn’t competent; this is his fourth year counting the beans.  Entertainment is a different business; it is more art than science and they are still learning the ropes.

Councillor Craven explains that the Board has leaned some lessons and that management has also learned some lessons – which is good – but they are doing all this learning on the public’s dime and the fear is that they may fail and Burlington will be in the same mess Hamilton is with their facility.

There are solid, competent people on staff who have yet to get a solid understanding of the city and what it thinks it wants in terms of culture.   The city has an executive director, Brenda Heatherington,  in place who brings loads of experience on growing and nurturing the appetite for culture.  What she may not yet have is a solid understanding of the market she is catering to – the public letters between the city hall reporter from the Post and Executive Editor Brenda Heatherington’s response made that clear.

This story isn’t over – council will have a very focused debate on this later in the week.  What the city does not want to find itself having to handle is a facility that many in the city didn’t want that now requires a million dollar annual intravenous line to keep it alive.

If that happens Burgess was very right – it will not be him serving as chair for very long.


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