sound_off: How can anyone expect the Brandon Sun’s coverage of the Strand Theatre to be unbiased when everyone knows the editor, James O’Connor, is best friends with Drew and Shandra Caldwell?
That disturbingly personal and mean-spirited submission to our Sound Off column this week is, sadly, indicative of how the entire effort to establish a multi-purpose performing arts centre in the abandoned Strand Theatre has been mercilessly attacked almost from the very start.
Petty personal jealousies and partisan politics have resulted in the efforts by the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society to be all but scuppered.
The fact that its initial application for $1.8 million to Canadian Heritage was rejected in March and the group decided to quietly accept an invitation to re-apply hasn’t helped the cause.
But while I question the BFMAS secrecy surrounding the grant rejection, I have to question that rejection itself.
Over time, the application made it fairly high up the Harper government’s food chain before being spit out.
I have to wonder if it has more to do with the feds’ across-the-board budget cutbacks — perhaps combined with the orange political stripe of the local proponents — which resulted in the rejection.
The province had committed about $1 million, if the federal money flows. The Strand project has also secured $474,000 in Renaissance Brandon funding.
However, that funding arrangement expires on Dec. 31, if other funding sources for the project are not secured.
I could go back even further and suggest the Strand would be open and supplying entertainment and economic activity to our city and region today if it weren’t for the indifference to the project by former mayor Dave Burgess when infrastructure money was flowing freely from the feds in 2009 from the Building Canada Fund.
But I digress.
I have been supportive of this project from the start — not just because I am friends with its proponents, but because I’m supportive of any creative and positive ideas to help the rejuvenation of our historic downtown.
Corporately, the Sun has been a cautiously optimistic supporter of the Strand project.
But the naysayers — and yes, the “boo-birds” — were out of the gate early on this project for all the wrong reasons.
Sure, they cloaked their opposition with misinformation about the project’s ultimate use and intentions, tossed out a few drive-by smears alleging conflicts of interest by politicians, and even dragged a few family members in as collateral damage.
But it was worth it, for them, because Brandon East NDP MLA Drew Caldwell was leaving himself open to attack. For those of you who don’t know by now, the acting chair and artistic director of the BFMAS is Caldwell’s wife, Shandra MacNeill.
Caldwell and MacNeill — the latter an unpaid volunteer with the registered charitable organization — had also made a few enemies a few years ago when they took over the folk festival board.
A founding director of the festival in the ’80s, Caldwell had been concerned over the direction the existing festival board was heading — in particular, the lack of financial due diligence — and along with MacNeill ran for, and were elected to, the board.
Soon after, the new board decided to redevelop the abandoned Strand Theatre, to serve as a centrepiece of what would become to be defined as Brandon’s Downtown HUB.
The city’s strategic plan calls for the creation of a downtown arts and entertainment hub.
In a letter to the editor this week, BFMAS vice-chair John Scott stated: “We have undertaken this work as dedicated community volunteers, in a spirit of goodwill, and with a deep love for Brandon in our heart. While there are some voices that have continuously attacked our work, we are mindful of the tenor of these voices and of the fact that almost every positive initiative ever undertaken in Brandon has had severe detractors.”
I can second that. Just think back to the howls of outrage over Assiniboine Community College’s plans to move to the old Brandon Mental Health Centre grounds. Or the ill-conceived objections against saving and restoring the truly historic and community defining Dome Building on the Keystone Centre grounds.
Caldwell has been a vocal supporter of both those projects.
As for BFMAS, Caldwell is no longer on the board, but volunteers for the festival and has spent literally hundreds of hours in recent years helping to keep the Strand from suffering damage from the elements and vagrants.
But while the building has weathered the storm — and is as solid as a rock, after some $200,000 in remediation last year courtesy of Renaissance Brandon and the building’s owners, Landmark Cinemas — the volunteers haven’t been so lucky.
Neither have Caldwell’s political fortunes.
Late last month, the Brandon Sun was the first to report the feds’ grant refusal — citing in its rejection letter issues with the financial viability of the BFMAS business plan — and our political reporter Keith Borkowsky soon also learned that other efforts to find funding were underway.
Perhaps overly eager efforts by a concerned Caldwell over the fate of a project near and dear to his heart.
As we reported Tuesday, in an email dated April 25 — obtained by the Brandon Sun through a freedom of information request — Caldwell informed provincial executive council staff that the BFMAS grant proposal to the federal government had been “denied over concerns with (the) business plan.”
He noted the feds were also concerned over the lack of an operating line underwritten by government or urban arts centre operating funds.
“I spoke with premier today about getting subscribed to the urban arts centre program and he was supportive,” Caldwell wrote. “We will have to turn this around asap to get this back on track quickly ... Would like (your) assistance doing this fast-track as the quicker we get a re-assessment, the better! An historic theatre on an historic downtown streetscape is pretty central to the development of an Arts and Entertainment Hub.... Sheesh!”
That was an email I’m sure Caldwell wishes he hadn’t sent — (a spinner might mention to him that his BlackBerry is also a phone) — as it prompted the Progressive Conservative Opposition to publicly raise allegations of conflict of interest and influence peddling during question period on consecutive days this week.
Like this type of discussion and arm-twisting never happens behind closed doors at any level of government by any political party?
But when cornered by the Tories, Premier Greg Selinger denied any “fast-tracking” of funding was taking place and later told the Sun that Caldwell, “hasn’t asked anything of me.”
So how does the underside of the premier’s bus look, Drew?
In the attempt to open an arts centre in an old theatre — something that has easily been accomplished in many, many other cities and towns across the continent — reputations have been bruised, careers damaged and a perfectly good heritage building still sits empty on 10th Street.
And as for that rejected Sound Off submission above ... all I can offer is an exasperated “Sheesh!”
While Drew is a close friend — he was best man at my wedding last summer — I also have a set of journalistic ethics to follow. And while my wife was employed as the volunteer co-ordinator at last year’s folk festival, I haven’t let my personal feelings cloud this media outlet’s view.
We do what needs to be done and I lay awake at night as a result.
I stepped back from any hands-on managing of the Brandon Sun’s exclusive story coverage of the Strand issue. I let reporter Borkowsky work with city editor Jim Lewthwaite and especially night editor/editorial page editor Matt Goerzen.
Our coverage has led the way on this issue. It has been unbiased, fair and tough.
I’ll leave you with a tweet my friend Drew sent out amid the firestorm last week.
“On all Brandon issues, without fear or favour, I am an active and demanding advocate for expeditiously moving our community forward.”
And for that, sir, expect nothing but sheer hell. Almost no good deed goes unpunished in Brandon.
HUMANE FUN FOR HUMANS
On a brighter note, another charity in town that I support is the Brandon Humane Society.
And an important annual fundraiser for the group takes place next week and I encourage all to attend.
The Bud n’ Spud Fundraiser will take place on Thursday, May 10, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Roadhouse at Canad Inns Brandon. Tickets are $20 and are available at Westoba Credit Union’s 18th Street and Kirkcaldy Drive branch, Monday to Saturday or by calling Jenny at 728-1709 or the shelter direct at 728-1333. Part of the evening’s fun is the rainbow auction. For the past couple of years, I have donated a large box containing a Whack of Schwag. It contains some of the assorted goodies that arrive here as promotional items, review copies and so on.
I haven’t given any away in this column recently, as I’ve been saving up for the humane society.
The shelter receives no city or provincial funding so fundraisers such as this help keep their doors open.
See you there!
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition May 5, 2012