The Khyber, arts, city staff: what next?

A lot of people have been calling and emailing very upset about the Khyber being on the list of property for the city to possible sell atTuesday’s Council meeting.

I have to say I too am really disappointed that this recommendation has come from staff.

It is hard not to feel that this is just the latest in a string of broken municipal promises around the Khyber as an arts centre.

Council has voted on three occasions that 1588 Barrington would be an arts & culture cluster, and twice has voted that Khyber Arts Society (KAS) would be a tenant and major partner in this building. Regional Council has not changed this direction, having neither voted on it, or even received a report on progress to date.

So when staff who deal with property tell me “there is no municipal requirement” and the property should be sold, well, it simply makes no sense.

Council said it wants an arts incubator downtown, in this building, repeatedly! It isn’t property staff that have dropped the ball. For whatever reason the promises made and the direction given back in 2010 were never followed up by staff, be it recreation, or culture, or whomever should have owned that arts incubator proposal and that process.

The municipality has been neglecting this building both physically and in terms of programming since it was acquired by the city for a dollar in the 1980s. The cost of renovations is now very high. Heritage architects and engineers that I personally trust and admire have reviewed the building and said that the floor system is failing and substantial engineering work will need to be done.

But I don’t really understand why my understanding and senior staff is so far apart on what should happen now. It seems crystal clear to me that two things should happen before we talk about possible disposal.

  1. Council motions do not have a best before date. The need and intent is unchanged. Staff has its marching orders. Why hasn’t any of the programming issues and a report on the success or failure of the 2010 plan come back to council? Staff should be actively engaging the KAS board, who in the 2010 report are supposed to be engaged in a management committee.
  2. Staff should be actively assessing what partners the municipality could have to rent the space to, talking to the Feds and the province about funding for the renovation, talking to developers and other big arts organizations about partnerships. I had one developer say he would renovate it and let the gallery stay for free for a 75 year lease. I had one major arts operator say they would take over management of the building and find tenants. There are a lot of unexplored options.  Bring these options to Council.  Engage the new Arts Halifax committee for ideas and suggestions.  Provide a report with the engineering assessment from the trusted heritage architects, so that this stops being a “he said she said” about the real cost of renovation.

Tomorrow in Council I will try and have the Khyber taken off the sale list and have staff given this direction.

But folks, let’s be perfectly clear – in every meeting I’ve had with KAS I’ve said ‘if the renovations really are going to cost more than a couple of million then we need to have a different conversation’. I feel the objective should be first and formost to be a municipally supported artist run centre in downtown, second issue is whether the Khyber building continues to be the right space. We need to be open minded about options. Is this the best and only space to deliver this program? Let’s have a big public discussion about it.

For my part, my first meeting with a senior manager about the Khyber was February 27, and I have a dozen emails documenting concerns.

Other than providing interim funding to KAS none of those concerns have been answered.

I have said to staff repeatedly these last months “if you need clarity come back to council for a motion” before this goes up for sale.

This is a big learning for me – on important and convoluted issues like this it is obviously better for me to go straight to Council, put a motion on the floor and provide direction and clarity to staff. I should have done that in February. I won’t make this mistake again.

COUNCIL MOTIONS REGARDING THE KHYBER

REGIONAL COUNCIL MINUTES July 31, 2007 – item 11.3.1
1. Authorize a process, as outlined in the May 31, 2007 staff report (Attachment 1 to the July 24, 2007 Cultural Advisory Committee report) to enable an HRM owned/community operated Arts & culture Cluster Facility at the Khyber building, 1588 Barrington Street; and
2. Authorize the initiation of a detailed Feasibility Study and Business Plan for the Khyber Arts & Culture Cluster.

REGIONAL COUNCIL MINUTES 6 September 23, 2008Regional Council – September 23, 2008 Item 10.1.1
1. Direct staff not to proceed with the reissuing of Request for Proposals, Creative Cluster Concept and Feasibility Study for the development of a creative arts cluster at 1588 Barrington Street, Alderney Landing and Peace Pavilion; and
2. Provide a $30,000 grant to the Khyber Arts Society in order to develop a business/strategic plan for the establishment of a contemporary art centre at1588 Barrington Street.

REGIONAL COUNCIL MINITES August 10, 2010 motion (status sheet item 8.1) passed that Halifax Regional Council approve:
1. The 3-year Operating Strategy and direct staff to commence interim programming of 1588 Barrington Street as an arts and cultural incubator, as outlined in the report dated June 21, 2010; and
2. That a recommendation to allocate all rentable space on the second floor to the Khyber Arts Society (KAS) at the present less-than-market rate for the next three years be referred to the Grants Committee for consideration.