LETHBRIDGE: City council approved a last-minute grant of emergency funding for the local symphony orchestra that came with a strong warning: don't come back.
"You've gotta shape up," said Ald. Liz Iwaskiw. After reluctantly agreeing to approve the Lethbridge Symphony Orchestra's request for $57,000, Iwaskiw turned to face administrators and supporters in the audience. "What you're doing isn't working."
Orchestra President Jesse Wilde and General Manager Dawn Leite approached council at their public meeting Monday. After running down a long list of contributions the group has made during its 50-year history in the community, the pair got to the point. Donations - from both individual and corporate sponsors - are down. Expenses are up. The group needs help soon or they may be forced to cut programming.
"We've largely tried to be silent in this community, putting on a good persona outwardly. Whereas inwardly, every board meeting we attend we're talking about our deficits," said Wilde.
Two years ago, the orchestra carried a deficit of $5,000. Last year, the deficit was $47,000 - which added to this year's debts to create the $57,000 shortfall. The situation was so bad that a board member had to loan the group $5,000 of their own money to cover payroll.
Hearing the stories, councilors were sympathetic but wary.
"It seems like you're using taxpayer money as a first resort, not a last resort," said Ald. Faron Ellis when it was his turn to speak during the debate, which lasted longer than an hour. He said the group should think more seriously about raising ticket prices, which at an average price of $28, he called "artificially low."
Representatives of the group estimate the average ticket price would cost $110 if they used ticket sales as the only source of revenue to balance their books. But they argued the majority of their patrons are 50 or older - an age group that is typically more modest with their spending. They say their pricing rate is on par with similar-sized cities like Red Deer, Okanagan and communities in Interior B.C.
Ald. Joe Mauro was one of three council members who voted "no" to grant them emergency funding. He cited the situation as a sign of fading relevance - that if the symphony couldn't get enough support to stay in the black, maybe that's a sign the community doesn't want or need this service anymore. Others wondered if this may set a precedent for other groups to line up for a hand out.
But Ald. Jeff Coffman disagreed. "I'm not worrying about setting a precedent for handouts because this is the first time a group has shown up," he said. "We have a contingency fund for this, and it should be used for this purpose."
In the end, it was only Ald. Bridget Mearns, Ald. Joe Mauro, and Ald. Faron Ellis who voted "no." The rest approved the emergency funding, while a second request for $175,000 to be distributed over the next three years was sent to council's upcoming budget deliberations, with no guarantee of success.
Wilde says that means he and his group will be working hard to follow Iwaskiw's advice, and come up with the money without council.
"If this organization is worth it for this community, the citizenry of Lethbridge and Southern Alberta should step up and assist us," said Wilde after the decision, his eyes watering slightly as he pointed out his general manager crying elsewhere in the audience.
"We love this organization and we have a vision for where this group can be and what it provides to our local community [....]. If our organization is as valuable as we deem it to be, we should certainly see some support economically in the years to come."