The Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society is embarking on the second act of its ongoing and contentious production with the City of New Westminster.
Ted Eddy, the society's president, wants the city to pay the society $14,000, which Eddy believes is still owed. Eddy recently met with city council to discuss the issue.
The $14,000 represents, in Eddy's opinion, assets left in the theatre when it closed and the city sold the building in 2010.
But city councillors were not convinced. And, in fact, think the society came out ahead during its relationship with the city.
On Jan. 21, council voted unanimously not to provide the $14,000, with several councillors stating the city had made "very large" financial contributions to the society during its time in the theatre.
"I think they just closed the books," said Michele Sereda, the society's vice-president. "They feel it is over and done with, they don't owe us anything and that's it. They don't want to proceed any further with it."
The Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society purchased items for the former Burr Theatre, including the main curtain, sound curtains, lighting instruments, theatre seats, the main stage and other items.
In a May 2006 letter to city council, then president Ted Syverson wrote that if the Burr Theatre ceased to function as a community theatre, the City of New Westminster would pay the society $14,000 for those assets, with the money used for bursaries and/or scholarships benefiting students in the city wishing to pursue an education in the performing arts. He said the assets were valued at more than $70,000, which was paid for with money raised by volunteers, not the city.
Eddy said the city doesn't seem to view that letter as a contractual agreement so he is "no longer shackled" by the $14,000 that the society had sought. He said the 14 items listed in the assets cost between $100,000 and $120,000.
"Indeed when I tried to recover those assets in December 2009, we had a buyer who was willing to pay much more than $14,000 for those assets," he told The Record following council's decision.
The matter appears to be far from resolved.
"They have invited me to dance, and the dance ain't over until this gorilla says so," Eddy said.
According to Eddy, the society is continuing its quest to be compensated for its assets, which were sold with the theatre.
"We are not the only people who had their assets swept up in the sale either," he said. "I am talking to those folks as well. They are not happy."
The Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society formed in the mid 1990s with a goal of purchasing and renovating the 1927 Columbia Theatre. The society's plan was to raise funds to buy, restore and renovate the theatre.
A staff report to council stated that when the society was unsuccessful in raising enough money to buy the theatre, the City of New Westminster stepped in and acquired the property and the building and negotiated an agreement with the society to restore and operate the theatre.
A Jan. 14 staff report to council listed some of the money that the city contributed to the theatre during the society's tenancy in the building: grants to the society - $324,350; replacement of roof and HVAC systems - $295,000; other expenses - $33,000; and unpaid bills --about $14,000. The report added the city didn't receive property taxes or market rent from the society in 2004 and 2006 as had originally been anticipated in the lease, a sum estimated to exceed $400,000.
"Really, a lot of the money they spent was spent as a landlord," Sereda said. "They weren't giving us anything, they were keeping up their building."
In August 2010, staff presented city council with a confidential report about the society's assets. At the time, staff sought council's direction on how to resolve the dispute about the society's assets.
"In reviewing the timing and content of council's resolutions regarding this matter, it appears that the decision to accept the Burr Society's assets proposal was made after the city had already covered the costs of their unpaid bills," stated the report about the letter from Syverson to the city. "Therefore, it is difficult for the city to insist that the payment of the society's bills was done in exchange for the assets. On the other hand, there is no evidence the agreement between the two parties was ever executed even though council approved it in principle. The city could argue that agreement was never reached."
The staff report outlined several options for council's consideration that included contributing to an arts bursary at Douglas College, granting the society $14,000 to establish a performing arts scholarship or declaring the matter closed (and take the position that there is no agreement in place unless an executed copy of the agreement that was signed by both parties can be produced).
Eddy said the city chose the "pause-button option," which he categorized as a "wait and see if it goes to legal proceedings" approach. He maintains that the assets must be considered in isolation and not lumped into other costs the city contributed to the theatre or the society.
Although some council members stated that the city has invested enough "taxpayer money" in the society, the group's treasurer Maureen Albanese said it's only seeking money it's owed from the sale of assets that the city included in the sale of the building. She noted that the assets are still on the society's books and have never been written off.
"It has gotten to the point where they are being silly about it," she said. "You want to fight back."
The society's board of directors is disappointed that city council appeared to have made a decision before January's meeting with Eddy.
"It reminded me of that laughable line from an old cowboy movie where they have cleared the bar to set up the courtroom and some drunk wanders in and says, 'Lets' get on with the trial so we can proceed to the hangin','" Eddy said.
The Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society, which continues to be a registered society, aims to develop theatre in New Westminster, to put on productions or partner with other groups to put on productions and to foster education in theatre arts through scholarship funds.
"It has been very difficult," Sereda said about finding a suitable location in New Westminster. "There is not enough space with the type of space we need."
While the Bernie Legge Theatre is "far too small" and Massey Theatre is "far too big," Sereda said theatre at Douglas College has potential. It's unknown whether the theatre in the city's future civic centre will meet the society's needs.
"It's a possibility, but we need to see the finished product," she said. "You have to be able to get all your props in, your scenes in. We don't know exactly how it is going to be configured. We don't know - we are not ruling it out. "
The Raymond Burr Performing Arts Society's board is adamant that the fight for its assets has nothing to do with the fact that the city selected another purchaser for the building. (People affiliated with the society submitted a bid to buy the theatre under the Columbia Theatre Heritage Trust name.)
Eddy said the Columbia Theatre Heritage Trust wished the successful purchaser the best of luck.
"Not only that but we had technical experts go into his reconfigured theatre and see if we could still operate," he said. "I don't know how you can construe that to be sour grapes."
According to Eddy, those experts concluded that the reconfigured theatre wasn't suitable for the society's productions.
"The productions themselves were financially successful. I think the year 2000 it contributed $32,000 to overhead. And it grew. In the last year, which was 2006, even without a marketing budget it contributed $92,000 to overhead in the building," Eddy said. "It wasn't the productions that were a failure or weren't carrying their weight so to speak. It was the building. It was an old building."
Eddy said the building had been neglected long before the city bought it and the society started offering productions.
He said the society bought assets such as seats, built a stage and spent $10,000 uncovering some of the theatre's historic murals.
"All of this was problematic for money," he said. "The society raised a considerable amount of money. The overburden of the upkeep in that building really did them in. I am not backing off and saying the society didn't do its best. Its best obviously wasn't good enough at that time."