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Capitol Theatre Passes Hat to Council Again
Editorial - August 21, 2009

The Chatham Capitol Theatre Association has missed a key fundraising benchmark set by council, and are now requesting more money. A request for $750,000 in contingency funding will be debated by council on Monday night. With all the Capitol Theatre naysayers and detractors cheerleading its demise and lobbying loudly to council, our elected officials will be in for some soul searching, as the gloves are sure to come off.

Council should not approve the request for more money this time, but not to appease the vocal naysayers. Presumably, when the municipality took over the Theatre, there were adequate safeguards put in place by council to avoid the China syndrome. It is time for this council to address the economic realities of this project head-on and demonstrate some leadership. In the process, we might hope they learn important lessons in fiscal accountability (like living within our means) that will be applied at municipal budget time.

If council's arrangements with the Capitol Theatre Association do not include this kind of oversight and authority, then we can only assume they do not practice thinking clearly in any other aspects of municipal governance either, and we all know the remedy for that in 2010.

Before we blame the Theatre for this situation (and they certainly aren't blameless after consistently missing targets while managing to make the renovations ever more grandiose), it's important to examine the broad picture to understand why this request came about. Quite simply, the Theatre did not raise enough money. In fact, they didn't come close. Why?

For one thing, many people have opposed the project with a vengeance since the beginning, and feel that their contribution was made involuntarily with tax dollars. Fair enough. And despite mayor Hope's halcyon-dazed outlook, Chatham-Kent has one of the highest unemployment rates in Canada, with no evidence the lost jobs aren't gone for good. Every sector must pinch the pennies, and the municipality itself has been the slowest to grasp this necessity. They all dilly-dallied right through the good times and must now bear the consequences of the recession like the rest of us.

But the biggest problem for the Theatre is that political leaders and the media sided with the naysayers' hatred and encouraged the smear campaign. This did nothing to encourage private donations.

The prevailing editorial slant, aided by misleading opinion letters unashamedly designed to stir up resentment, has essentially slammed the Theatre from the get-go. This became Chatham-Kent's national pasttime. Too many times, misinformation was not refuted by Theatre supporters, and donut shop innuendo has left an inaccurate but extremely damaging mark that has proven to be indelible. Thus, the stage of mistrust and opposition has been allowed to fester for a decade and a half.

This obviously affected private contributions and perpetuated the delays, causing even more opposition and delays. Monday is too late to apply a remedy. Adding to the ticket surtax designed to pay the municipality back will only increase ticket prices and upset their business model. This will make tickets little more than a voluntary tax, which won't go over well with the demographic they need to attract.

When the opportunity arose to secure $7 million in funding to complete the job, council took on the role of Theatre ownership without selling the electorate on the idea. That money might have easily gone to a project outside Chatham-Kent, so it was a valiant effort to salvage an obvious white elephant during a rare occasion when the province unlocked the cash drawer.

A driving factor in this decision was that a previous council had already given $1 million to the Capitol Theatre with no strings attached, and many local businesses and private individuals had donated money also. The municipality has been using the Capitol Theatre in promotional material since at least 2003, since that grand opening was always just around the corner. We all had a stake in seeing the project finished, and this was a way to gain some control.

Accepting the $7 million, combined with the municipality taking over the Theatre ownership, incurred wide condemnation, allowing the resentment and rhetoric to reach new levels. This is the point where council should have laid down the law and made them finish the job within the budget available. This was the time to correct the previous handout with no oversight of our tax dollars. At the same time, the media should have aligned themselves behind this community initiative to ensure we started getting value for our money.

This kind of leadership should have been used to leverage the private donations that were necessary to keep the Theatre away from the public trough. It should have been made clear that there wasn't an endless supply of municipal cash, but absolutely nothing was done by the municipality nor the media that would inspire these private and corporate givings.

With all the negativity spewing forth, it's no wonder enough private money could not be raised. The reality now facing us is that the project will have to be scaled back to be completed within its means. At least we'll get over the running joke, and the work of marketing our community as an entertainment destination will dilute the smell of white elephant over time. Monday night is when council needs to take hold of the tusks and make this happen.

It is important that Chatham-Kent emerge from this fiasco without any pie on our faces. If that Theatre does not open in 2010, we'll certainly be gathering at the graveside, and the implications would be far-reaching - the tax expenditures and losses would begin in earnest. This is without doubt their last chance to get it right, because too many people are planning the funeral already.

Depending on which way we pull the curtain, mandating the Theatre to open in spring using the resources already available could serve to finally kickstart the benefits this Theatre is supposed to provide. But if it fails, Chatham-Kent will be known as a negative backwoods place that does not support community initiatives and can't get the job done. This will likely haunt our efforts to attract new businesses or doctors for a long time. We can do without any more stigma. It's up to council to decide which kind of reputation we'll have to live down.

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