At their most recent meeting on August 13, Meaford councillors considered a number of potential projects that could be eligible for a new round of grant funding from the Community Infrastructure Investment Fund.
Presented with a list of seven projects prepared by municipal staff, council quickly zeroed in on two possibilities – a renovation of the balcony at Meaford Hall, and the reconstruction of the quickly deteriorating Blue Dolphin public swimming pool.
After some discussion, council decided that they would direct staff to apply for grant funding for both projects, but then had to prioritize them after learning that if a municipality is applying for more than one grant opportunity, they are required to let CIIF know which of the potential projects is more important.
Meaford's council, after a brief though spirited debate decided to make the $345,000 renovation of Meaford Hall's balcony the top priority. Their general reasoning was that Meaford Hall has the potential to generate revenue, and the proposed renovation would add 50 comfortable new seats to the balcony which would in theory allow the hall to sell more tickets, which presumably would result in increased earnings for the hall.
While on the surface that might make some sense, in reality it left me puzzled.
Don't get me wrong, I love Meaford Hall.
When I moved to Meaford in 2005, the hall was one of the facilities in this town that really impressed me. I thought it wonderful that a relatively small rural community had such a fine arts and culture centre. I have attended many events at the hall, both for work and for personal entertainment, and in spite of all of the peripheral baggage and community division that surrounded the costly renovation of that facility, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would deny that it is a fabulous asset for a small community with definite long-term potential.
But of the many performances that I have attended in the opera house on the upper level of the hall, sold out crowds have been quite rare.
In fact, with the exception of some very high profile events such as the Meaford International Film Festival, I have rarely seen the opera house more than half filled which is why I am puzzled that a $345,000 balcony renovation would be a top priority when compared to a 40 year old community swimming pool that has exceeded its anticipated service life and as has been reported to council repeatedly over the last few years, is falling into a state of disrepair.
If Meaford Hall was constantly selling out I might be able to be convinced that renovation of the balcony should be a top priority, but that isn't the case. If the addition of 50 extra seats in the balcony would mean the difference between Meaford Hall moving from the red to the black, I might be able to be convinced, but the hall has a fair way to go before they start tickling the black, and I would doubt that 50 balcony seats would propel them there.
I say that with the greatest respect, as I personally don't mind that the operation of the hall is subsidized with property tax dollars. Call me a left-wing nut-bar, but when it comes to community assets such as swimming pools, libraries, arenas, parks, and yes even arts and culture centres, I consider those to be the cost of creating and maintaining a vibrant, liveable community and so I have never been particularly concerned with whether Meaford Hall is getting close to turning a profit. If it was to do so, that would of course be fantastic, but I think that the benefits to the community that the facility brings are worth the tax dollars that subsidize its operation.
But if we are talking about prioritizing where to invest public funds in a community, and if the argument is put forward that renovation of the hall balcony will increase ticket sales, which is of more benefit than ensuring a safe, well maintained public swimming pool, I have to admit, I find the argument to be amusing.
Less than two years ago, in November of 2010, Meaford Hall issued a press release in which they expressed great excitement that with just over a month remaining in that year, they had seen nine of their shows sell out.
Nine in the first ten months of 2010. Less than one sellout per month.
If we assume that currently the hall is selling out one performance per month, then a $345,000 investment in the balcony which would result in 50 additional seats for the hall to offer patrons, and if we assume that those extra 50 seats would be pure extra profit for the hall, at an average ticket price of $40 it would take more than 14 years to recover the cost of the renovation.
On the other hand, if the hall was experiencing a sellout performance each week, and if having an extra 50 comfortable seats available would allow those who couldn't get tickets to a performance to be able to attend, and if those additional ticket sales would mean that the facility would then turn a profit, then the time to make back the money spent would be slightly more than three years – that would indeed make some sense.
Of course some will argue that the portion the municipality would have to kick in should their grant application be successful would be just $115,000, with equal amounts coming from CIIF and the Hall Foundation to make up the balance. The pool reconstruction on the other hand would cost the municipality $400,000, with the remaining $400,000 coming from the CIIF grant along with public fundraising, so admittedly reconstructing the pool would cost more on all fronts.
But one of the things many seem to forget when it comes to grant funding for municipal infrastructure projects is that it isn't free money - all of the money comes from our pockets. CIIF is a government funded grant program, so the money to support those grants, while it might not come from our property taxes, still comes from one tax stream or another. The fact that the Hall Foundation has committed to kick in a third of the cost is fantastic, but again, that is still money that comes from the pockets of business owners and residents in our community who choose to contribute.
So why, when the hall is not experiencing regular sellouts, should the renovation of the balcony be considered a top priority?
Council was told that the seats that currently exist in the balcony are uncomfortable, and some of them are deemed to be unsafe.
Uncomfortable sure, but anyone who has ever attended a concert in the balcony of Toronto's legendary Massey Hall will know that those hard wooden seats are also uncomfortable, but for the reduced price, many people will endure for a couple of hours to take in a performance.
If there are safety concerns with some of the seats, then obviously that should be addressed, but surely that could be done as a short term, low cost project at least until the hall is regularly reaching capacity.
The Blue Dolphin pool on the other hand, while not a revenue generating facility, is an important community asset that should not be left to decay until it is no longer useable.
Public swimming pools are a place where our children learn important skills, where they learn about water safety, and where they can spend an afternoon on a warm summer day cooling off while getting some exercise. So public swimming pools are an important place for learning, fun, and promotion of physical activity.
A public swimming pool may not be a money maker, but it is certainly a draw for families or businesses considering relocating to Meaford, and so I would argue that even from an economic development perspective, a community that has a well maintained public swimming pool has an appeal that a community without one might not.
Yes, the $800,000 total cost of a reconstruction of the pool is considerably more than the $345,000 to renovate the balcony of Meaford Hall, but as Councillor Mike Poetker rightly pointed out during discussion with his fellow councillors on August 13, “If the swimming pool fails entirely, we don't have a swimming pool, if we don't refurbish the balcony, we still have Meaford Hall.”
More than 80 percent of Meaford Independent readers who responded to a poll asking which should be the priority agree with Councillor Poetker, and so do I.