A public battle has erupted between the city of Fort St. John and a long-standing arts group in the community, with each side accusing the other of shady relationships and bad faith negotiations over the future of a local arts center , described as the heartbeat of arts and culture in the northern British Columbia community.
The city says the North Peace Cultural Society mismanaged the building, pocketing tips and overcharging rent for other cultural groups, which “slipped the center into oblivion,” in the words of Mayor Lori Ackerman.
For its part, the company says the city is attempting a “hostile takeover” and is breaking the spirit of a long-standing agreement to cooperate on the future of the center.
All the other arts and culture groups that use the North Peace Cultural Center, which first opened in 1992, are caught in the middle of the battle for civic custody. The center houses the city’s public library, an art gallery and a 413-seat performance. theater, as well as a space for local arts groups to use for workshops and lessons.
“An anger that burns slowly” from the building manager
For most of its existence, the North Peace Cultural Center was run by the North Peace Cultural Society, whose members raised funds to purchase the land on which the building sits before selling it to the city for a dollar. , according to a letter published by the company. Advice.
But ownership of the center belongs to the City of Fort St. John, and on June 15, the city announced it would take over the management of the building, as well as the hiring of new staff to take on the duties currently performed by the society. .
The news surprised the company’s COO, Oliver Hachmeister, who said his reaction had been “a shock. [and] disbelief “which” slowly turned into a slowly burning anger “at the actions of the city.
“We feel like the city doesn’t have a plan for the center or for the city. They don’t have any cultural plan as part of their community plan,” he told Carolina de Ryk, CBC host. Dawn in the north.
“They think it’s just putting concerts on stage,” he continued. “But then there’s the iceberg that’s below the water level, and they don’t know it. Even though we’ve tried to communicate it for the past five years, they just don’t seem to understand. . “
Hachmeister said he believed the city had negotiated in good faith with the company for an extension of its management contract, which expired in November 2020, but now believes that was not the case. “They went from a five-year plan to ‘you have 90 days to go out’,” he said. “This is very worrying.”
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City accuses company of tipping
The city posted several letters online, citing “fundamental differences“with the company, with the general manager Milo MacDonald writes, “During negotiations on a new agreement, it became evident that the current arrangement was not working.”
He also noted that concerns about the company had been raised as early as 2015 and had not been fully resolved.
On June 22, Mayor Lori Ackerman posted his own letter describing more specific details and accusations, including the fact that the company had pocketed tips for catering staff working at events held in the center.
In a written response to that complaint, Hachmeister said an employee raised concerns about not receiving tips through BCGEU in September 2019.
“We opened an investigation and concluded that it was true. We determined who was working for each catering shift that had been assigned and issued pay checks to the affected staff members. The BCGEU was satisfied with the outcome and did not ‘There were no grievances. “
Hachmeister said the lack of payment was a mistake, that it has been corrected and that the company is in the process of providing documents to prove this to the city.
“Exorbitant” rental rates, according to the mayor
Ackerman also said a review of the company’s finances revealed that it had accumulated a cash reserve of $ 500,000, which it said was partly built up by charging other cultural groups unfair rental rates for use the building.
In particular, she cited the library’s annual rent of over $ 80,000, an amount she described as “unfathomable” and “exorbitant” for a nonprofit operating in a building owned by the city. The library, she said, was “on the verge of ceasing to exist” because of the costs, and the city felt the need to intervene.
In his interview, Hachmeister acknowledged that the financial responsibility of the library had been raised several times in the negotiations, but argued that the company had offered to allow him to stay in the building for free as long as the city covered the cost of the utilities – an offer he claimed that the city rejected.
He also said the company charges rent based on market prices.
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Ackerman said she understood that some in the arts community in Fort St. John’s were upset by the changes to the centre’s operations, but that she had also received numerous letters and phone calls of support from people who had been alienated by the management of the North Peace Cultural Society building.
“People contacted us to tell us that the place had been forgotten for more than a decade, that the jewel of peace had actually become a simple bus station and that it was no longer affordable”, she declared. “What we really need is for the center to be open to everyone.”
Ackerman said his goal for the future would be to talk to other arts and culture groups about how best to use the center under city management.
“This is not about shutting down a service to the community,” she said. “It’s the end of a deal.”