A small group of people sat in their cars, honking as a final send off for the Parksville Community Centre (PCC) on the last day of an operating agreement between the city and the Parksville Community Centre Society (PCCS).
“All the memories will live on through us and the hall will not be forgotten. The reason for its demise will be remembered next election,” said Duane Round, former president of the PCCS, in a brief eulogy for the centre on Dec. 31, 2020.
The city announced last year it would not renew its agreement with the PCCS and would instead work with the Boys and Girls Club of Central Vancouver Island (BGCCVI) to operate the facility.
The decision was a surprise to many people who supported the centre. During his years as liaison to the PCC, former city councillor Kirk Oates said he never received any complaints about the centre’s budget.
“I knew there was always concern but I didn’t know that such a drastic measure was being contemplated,” said Oates.
The city came close to cancelling the agreement with the PCCS in 2018 and 2019.
Council voted, in a closed meeting, to approve the centre’s budget in December 2018 with the understanding that the agreement would end in 2019. In October, 2019 council decided to renew the contract through to Dec. 31, 2020.
The city sent out a news release on Oct. 20 of last year announcing council’s decision not to renew its agreement with the PCCS.
Mayor Ed Mayne said it would have been easier to follow previous council’s example and extend the operating agreement for another year.
“Trust me, since 2010 every council has had this conversation about closing down the PCC and terminating that agreement,” he said, adding the issue goes back years before he was elected in 2018.
Mayne said previous councils “bailed at the last minute because of all the repercussions they felt and kicked the can further down the street.”
“I have a real problem with kicking cans down the street. I think if it’s the right thing to do, you make the right decision and you live with that decision,” he said.
The city hired KPMG, a consulting firm, to conduct a business analysis of what was then known as the Parksville Community and Conference Centre (PCCC) in 2016. KPMG conducted a financial analysis and an organizational review of the centre and reported the PCC’s operating costs nearly doubled between 2003 and 2015 — mainly due to administration costs. It also found subsidization by the city increased steadily in the past six years.
“It is our overall conclusion that the operation of the PCCC provides significant value to the taxpayers of Parksville but that this value could be enhanced by refreshing the facility’s branding and marketing approach, strengthening the society’s governance and operational processes,” reads the report.
Oates said he did not believe the report was necessary, but other councillors at the time were concerned about the centre’s efficiency.
“The KPMG report supported my belief, which was that the community centre was not an albatross around the community’s neck. It wasn’t a money hole — it was something that the community supported and it was good value for the money relative to other communities,” he said.
When PCC employees unionized in 2011, the centre’s operating cost increased by $60,000 and significantly increased the city’s operating subsidy, according to the report.
“In order to maintain that facility, or sustain things, you needed to be able to make some money. In our agreement with the city, the plan was, and I remember the board always telling me — ‘this place cannot go union. If it goes union we will not be able to afford to run this centre,’” said Lori Koop, the centre’s first executive director.
The city was not interested in running the community centre and was happy to have the society run it — but it needed to be sustainable and make money, she said. The centre was operated by just Koop and one part-time employee in the early years of operation, along with volunteers.
“There were some days I would be in a sundress and high heels and I was cleaning the bathrooms and there’s a lot of bathrooms in there,” laughed Koop, who also recalled setting up hundreds of chairs for events at the centre.
Koop found it was necessary to hire more staff when it became clear the PCC could not rely on volunteers for operation.
It was important for the centre to bring in clients paying full rate to allow it to provide a subsidized rate to community groups, said Koop. “It was a huge marketing thing when I started there. I was everywhere, I was at every chamber meeting, every event that’s out there — I was there as the face of the centre trying to drum up business.”
Koop left the PCC in 2007 and said at the time she felt optimistic about the centre’s future, but said later executive directors took a different approach. “I wouldn’t say things blossomed, as I hoped they would.”
There were successes, such as the centre being chosen as a viewing site for the 2010 Olympics, thanks to the installation of a 16-foot screen purchased with grant money, but Koop said she was concerned when she heard the workers would be paid union wages.
“I would struggle with fighting for my employees to make a living wage, but yet I knew that couldn’t be union wages. There’s a point where you could go up without going to union wages,” she said.
When Sue Powell was appointed council’s liaison to the community centre in 2015, she found a “hands off” PCCS board and confusing financial statements.
“When I tried to help them it was really apparent to me that the board was not operating in the way that they should,” she said. “Expenses were either underestimated or overestimated in their budgets and so that’s what we questioned them on.”
New board members joined, following the 2016 KPMG report and began to implement its recommendations, such as adopting a more flexible rate structure, implementing a strategic approach to fund development, establishing a customer satisfaction survey and updating their website, Powell said.
“It’s a big machine; they couldn’t do it overnight. They were trying to do it, they were implementing the things, they were getting tugged from a number of different directions,” said Oates, who replaced Powell as liaison in 2015.
The board was asked by the city to increase the number of activities being held, while also reducing the number of staff, according to Lisa Paine, who was the society’s treasurer in 2018.
“When the new council was voted in we were kind of blindsided by the results, because we were working closely with the City of Parksville and the liaison, Kirk Oates, to really move it along and get things done and tidied up,” said Paine.
Not long after the 2018 election, council told the PCCS its operating agreement would not be renewed, according to Paine. She said the board was surprised, especially because it had not presented its budget to council yet. Council later voted to extend the agreement for another year.
“It had been only three weeks since the election,” Paine said. The centre’s subsidy was too high and council had told residents it would cut down on spending, Paine was told by council.
“By this time the board was really hands-on in terms of daily operations. Staff were wondering how long they would have jobs,” said Paine.
Oates said Paine, PCCS president Holly Heppner and others worked hard to make the centre work and he saw no reason not to continue the agreement.
“The centre belongs to the community, not to council, and if the community keeps the pressure up, hopefully they’re able to reverse the decision,” said Oates.
Agreement with the BGCCVI
Mayne said the BGCCVI will help the city’s economic development by providing childcare spaces and attracting young families. When the city began looking for childcare options the organization said it could provide as many spaces as needed.
“We had a lot of consultation, when we first started, about economic development, about recreation, affordable housing — all of that was included in that conversation and we did talk about how do we get that,” said Mayne.
Mayne said he is confident there are enough spaces for programs and events in the city, such as Tigh-Na-Mara, the Beach Club, the rodeo grounds, Shelly Hall and the Qualicum Beach Civic Centre. “We’re talking a 10 minute drive between the areas,” he said.
Mayne added the PCC will host candidate debates, election polling and also serve as a gathering area for emergencies, based on initial discussions between the city and BGCCVI.
“It’s very difficult to raise issue with the Boys and Girls Club, it’s like arguing with motherhood and apple pie, because on the surface it sounds like a wonderful thing,” said Oates, adding he is concerned about what could happen if the grant funding falls through.
“I do see it as a huge loss to the community, because now there is not a central hub for any of the programs that were offered out of there, including programs for youth and children,” said Paine.
The future of the centre is uncertain until a formal agreement is signed this spring, pending provincial funding for the project. The city said it expects to be notified in March regarding the grant.
PCCS president Holly Heppner did not respond to Oceanside News’ request for comment.