Museum, arena white papers disappoint council
Last February Rossland council directed city staff to prioritize business plans for four city operations, including the Rossland Museum & Discovery Centre and the Rossland Arena.
Then in May, a consultant was contracted to develop business plans for the museum and arena. But when those business plans were released as part of a council meeting agenda for Feb. 6, they had become white papers — documents that left stakeholders shaking their heads.
The first criticisms levied at the white papers came from Janice Nightingale, a member of the Smokettes. Nightingale was one of the arena users who participated in a consultation with consultant Kamren Farr in September, and when the white papers appeared before council on Feb. 6 she attended the meeting to voice her concerns.
“Unfortunately this isn’t really a business plan. There are no numbers in it — there are numbers in it, there are no substantiated numbers in it. So really, what we paid for — what the public taxpayer paid for — was 30 pages of opinion,” she said.
The contract agreement between Farr and the city (obtained through a freedom of information request filed by Nightingale’s husband) specifies that Farr was contracted “to develop and complete business plans for the City’s Museum and Arena facilities to ensure they look to become economically sustainable and are compatible with the long term vision of the City.”
In exchange for the services he provided, Mayor Kathy Moore says Farr was paid $5,325, though that doesn’t represent the city’s full financial investment for the white papers, as Steve Ash — who was then the acting chief financial officer and drawing a salary — acted as the liaison between Farr and the city and spent an unknown amount of time on the project.
Moore says the reason the documents Farr produced were white papers and not business plans was because there wasn’t enough information available for what council originally wanted.
“Earlier on in the process, we pretty much determined we didn’t have enough information for Kamren to really do an official kind of business plan, and so we were just like, ‘Well, give us the information you have, it’ll be good background material,’” explains Moore.
Farr said it would be inapproriate for him to comment on this story without authorization from Rossland council.
But issues have also been raised about the information contained in the white papers.
Nightingale said she provided Farr with hours of usage for the arena by rental groups on Sept. 14, but though the “Summary of Rossland Arena User Group Consultations” report he prepared in October refers to ice time booked and 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 usage, the number of hours historically booked at the arena are not provided.
Moore says that council was not looking for hours booked, but for the number of users in the arena at any time.
“When I’m talking about user numbers, I’m not just talking about junior hockey books it for these hours, I want to know how many people actually show up,” she explains.
Moore says the city has already implemented a strategy to collect more accurate user numbers, but wasn’t able to provide an explanation as to why available data — even if it wasn’t exactly what the city had in mind — wasn’t included as relevant background information.
Representatives from the museum have also said that the “Rossland Museum Site White Paper” contains inaccurate information, and having met with them to discuss the matter, Moore admits there’s truth to that.
“They pointed out the things that they say were actual inaccuracies, some of them were really minor, and some of them were substantive,” she said.
Coun. Andrew Zwicker was also at that meeting, and summed it up at a council meeting on March 6.
“I had a museum meeting, and we met with Michael Ramsey, and they do such great work. They said we’ve got all of these discrepancies with the white paper. We went through it and it was really interesting. Some of the data wasn’t quite right. Some of their conclusions weren’t quite right. What it came down to is they didn’t think there was very much value in the white paper at the end of the day. The work that was done was quite poor and not what we asked for,” he said.
Joelle Hodgins, museum director, thinks the paper made the museum look bad.
“At one point it talks about us not having a capital grant plan, how we’re going to fundraise for the future phases, and that being a stressful situation kind of thing for the city to be in, but we have a capital grant plan in our business plan, we have a capital grant plan in the renewal plan — in every area that we should have it, it exists,” she says. “So at the end of it, it makes it seem like we haven’t done our planning and the relationship is bad and we have done an excessive amount of planning and the relationship is great. So the paper just made us look terrible.”
On the final page of the museum white paper, Farr wrote “It will require a careful communications strategy to rebuild the relationship with the Museum Board,” but neither the museum board, nor anyone from the city knows where that came from.
“I read that and I thought, ‘I wonder if the relationship is bad with the city,’ because I didn’t think it was bad either,” said Moore. “I’ve talked to other people in the city and I’ve talked to the museum board as well, and we all agree the relationship is just fine.”
In the part of the museum white paper that includes revenue information, Farr wrote “Note: Detailed financial statements were not provided.” Hodgins feels that statement was damaging to the museum.
“It suggests the financials weren’t given, and we weren’t asked for financials,” Hodgins said of the white paper. “Because it makes it sound like we withheld our financials, which not only did we not, they’re publicly available at all times online. So we kind of feel like it made us look bad and [we] had no chance to do anything about it.”
Hodgins and museum board vice president Mike Ramsey (who happens to be Nightingale’s husband and the one who requested a copy of Farr’s contract under freedom of information), say they met with Farr and Ash only once during the process. A follow up meeting was scheduled for September, but had to be cancelled and was never rescheduled. After that, they received no further information until the white papers appeared on the council agenda for Feb. 6.
“We just happened to have looked at the agenda and thought maybe we should show up,” said Hodgins.
Asked why there was a lack of communication with a key stakeholder in putting together the museum white paper, Moore said, “Good question, and you know what, I don’t have an answer for it, I really don’t.”
The museum white paper, dated July 2016, ends with a number of options on how the city might proceed with the museum, most of which involved revising or cancelling Phase 1 of the museum’s renovation project, which began before the document was publicly released.
Moore now says that council should have publicly released the documents in July, after council first saw them in camera.
“I think what’s backwards about it is we should have just released it in July, publicly, and honestly I don’t know why we didn’t,” she said. “There may have been a really good reason and I forget. I do forget things, I have to admit. But my recollection is that I thought we were waiting for more information from Kamren, but then Kamren thought he was waiting for questions from us. So there was a miscommunication there somewhere, and I’ll just take it. That was my fault for whatever reason, although I can’t remember what the reason was.”
Moore also indicated that council has likely already taken the actions it’s likely to take based on those documents.
“We took what we wanted out of those papers and moved on with it, and honestly there’s just so many things that go on at the city, I was sort of done with it in a way. And also you have to put that in the context of we’d had the public engagement,” she said. “The public engagement was like, ‘Yeah we love our city the way it is, don’t mess with it.’ So all of these things that had seemed like such critical issues to me at the beginning of the year, like ‘Oh people are going crazy because taxes are too high, we’re spending too much money and we’re offering too many services for a town our size,’ all of that kind of faded in the background for me, because really people are happy with the city.”
The public engagement Moore is referring to was conducted by T. Miller and Associates, and the results they provided indicated that most of those surveyed thought a moderate increase in taxes was acceptable and that city facilities like the arena and pool were valued in the community.
Another issue regarding the museum white paper, which Nightingale raised at the meeting on Feb. 6, is that the museum had presented its own business plan to council on Jan. 25 before council asked staff to prioritize a business plan for the facility on Feb. 17. Comparing the museum white paper to that document, it appears that certain parts of the white paper were taken directly from the museum’s business plan.
Asked why council commissioned a business plan for a facility that had just done one, Moore said, “Part of it was we wanted sort of just an independent person to look at it, and there were things in the museum plan… I mean their plan is good, their plan is really good. … But there were some things that they said like revenues would increase by 40 to 70 per cent once the mining experience was there, but that wasn’t really tied to anything specific.”
But Moore acknowledges that’s not what the city got.
“Of course then it turned out we didn’t really get that anyway. So it just sort of happened organically that what we set out to do with Kamren and what we ended up getting from Kamren was not what we originally wanted, but that turned out to be that way because the specifics just weren’t there,” she said. “So that’s it. We wanted an independent view and turns out the independent view really wasn’t all that much more informative than what the museum had put together.”
Since council first saw the white papers in July they have reduced the arena’s season and increased its fees. Moore says she and City of Rossland CAO Bryan Teasdale also met with museum representatives to ensure Phase 1 was the best use of funds — a question raised in the museum white paper — but by the end of the meeting were convinced Phase 1 was a good way to proceed.
At the meeting on Feb. 6, council received the papers, but other than beginning the work of creating an arena task force, have not taken further actions based on those documents.
“The white papers weren’t perfect, but they did give us information and information is what we have had very little of on any of these facilities. You know past councils haven’t really looked at it in any depth and we’re trying,” says Moore.
“So this is our first effort at trying and maybe it wasn’t perfect — well it certainly wasn’t perfect — but at least we have information, combine that with what we do with public engagement, we try to get a picture, because our purpose is to serve the public and we need to know what the public wants us to do.”