B.C. city claims art group is pocketing tips, while arts group accuses city of ‘hostile takeover’

A public battle has erupted between the City of Fort St. John and a longstanding arts group in the community, with each side accusing the other of shady dealings and bad-faith negotiations over the future of a local arts centre, described as the heartbeat of arts and culture in the northern B.C. community.

The city claims the North Peace Cultural Society has mismanaged the building, pocketing tips and overcharging other cultural groups for rent, resulting in the centre “sliding into oblivion,” in the words of Mayor Lori Ackerman.

For its part, the society says the city is attempting a “hostile takeover” and breaking the spirit of a longstanding agreement to co-operate on the centre’s future.

Caught in the middle of the civic custody battle are all the other arts and culture groups that utilize the North Peace Cultural Centre, which first opened its doors in 1992. The centre houses the city’s public library, an art gallery and a 413-seat performance theatre, as well as space for local arts groups to use for workshops and lessons.

‘A slow-burning anger’ from building manager

For most of its existence, the North Peace Cultural Centre has been managed by the North Peace Cultural Society, whose members fundraised to buy the land the building sits on before selling it to the city for a dollar, according to a letter released by the society’s board.

But ownership of the centre rests with the City of Fort St. John, and on June 15, the city announced it would be taking over management of the building, as well as hiring new staff to take over the duties currently carried out by the society.

This news came as a surprise to the society’s operations manager, Oliver Hachmeister, who said his reaction was “shock [and] disbelief” that “slowly morphed into a slow-burning anger” over the city’s actions.

The North Peace Cultural Centre in downtown Fort St. John, B.C. first opened in 1992. (Andrew Kurjata)

“We feel like the city doesn’t have a plan for the centre or for the city. They have no cultural plan as part of their community plan,” he told Carolina de Ryk, the host of  Daybreak North.

“They think that it’s just putting concerts on stage,” he went on. “But then there’s the iceberg that’s below the water level, and they don’t know that. Even though we’ve tried to communicate that over the last five years, they just don’t seem to get it.”

Hachmeister said he had believed the city had been negotiating in good faith with the society over an extension of its management contract, which expired in November 2020, but now felt that was not the case. “They went from a five-year plan to, ‘you have 90 days to get out,'” he said. “That’s very concerning.”

The society received several letters of support from members of the artistic community, which it publicly posted to its Facebook page and website in an attempt to reverse the decision.

City accuses society of pocketing tips

The city has posted several letters of its own online, citing “fundamental differences” with the society, with chief administrative officer Milo MacDonald writing, “during negotiations on a new agreement, it became apparent that the current arrangement was not working.”

He also noted concerns about the society had been raised as far back as 2015 and were not fully resolved.

On June 22,  Mayor Lori Ackerman posted her own letter outlining more specific details and accusations, among them that the society had been pocketing tips meant for catering staff working at events held in the centre.

In a written response to this claim, Hachmeister said an employee had raised concerns about not receiving gratuities through the BCGEU in September 2019.

“We began an investigation and concluded that it was true. We determined who worked each catering shift that had been affected and issued paycheques to the affected staff members. The BCGEU was satisfied with the result and there was no grievance.”

Hachmeister said the lack of payment had been a mistake, that it was corrected, and the society is in the process of providing records proving this to the city.

Rental rates ‘exorbitant,’ mayor says

Ackerman also said an examination of the society’s finances revealed it had accumulated a cash reserve of $500,000, built up in part, she believed, by charging other cultural groups unfair rental rates to use the building.

In particular, she cited the library’s annual rent of more than $80,000, an amount she called “unfathomable” and “exorbitant” for a non-profit operating in a city-owned building. The library, she said, was “on the cusp of ceasing to exist” as a result of the costs, and the city felt the need to step in.

In his interview, Hachmeister acknowledged that the financial liability of the library had been raised numerous times in negotiations but argued the society had offered to allow it to stay in the building rent free as long as the city would cover the cost of utilities — an offer he claimed the city rejected.

He also said the society charged rent based on market prices.

Ackerman said she understood that some members of Fort St. John’s artistic community were upset by changes to the centre’s operations but that she had also received many letters and phone calls of support from people who had been alienated by the North Peace Cultural Society’s management of the building.

“We’ve had people reach out to us saying the place has been sliding into oblivion for well over a decade, that the jewel of the Peace has become really, just a bus station and it’s no longer affordable,” she said. “What we really need is the centre to be open to all.”

Ackerman said her focus moving forward would be in speaking to other arts and culture groups about how they can best utilize the centre under city management.

“This is not about shutting down a service to the community,” she said. “This is an end to an agreement.”

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