Community Correspondent: Kerrisdale community centre's legacy a model threatened by city

City hall's new 'efficient' style will erode parks and recreation system

One of Vancouver's truly interesting characteristics is its 24 neighbourhoods, distinct geographic enclaves across the city. They all have their own unique charms and challenges but it has always been thus. Kerrisdale is one of them. Originally the hub of the Point Grey municipality before the city's amalgamation in 1929, the Kerrisdale Community Centre now sits where once stood the handsome arts and craft style municipal city hall. My point is that the Village has been a vibrant business area and community since about 1905.

The diverse merchants of Kerrisdale formed a strong association decades before the Business Improvement Area schemes now in place city-wide. Actually, when Kerrisdale followed suit and formed its own BIA in 1990, this grassroots forerunner brought over $80,000 in funds into the equation. I guess you could say they were good managers of their collective money.

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Kerrisdale Village's December holiday entertainment has already started with the perennial horse and carriage rides, strolling brass bands, quartets, and of course, Santa Claus. December Saturdays, between 12 to 4 p.m., near Yew and West 41st, is where you'll discover enough enthusiasm for the season putting a smile on your face while making those very important purchases be it a holiday gift, lunch or a cup of coffee.

But back to the Kerrisdale Community. Following the Second World War, the community and business leaders approached the elected Vancouver park board with a plan to build a skating arena and a community centre. They knew it would be expensive but their proposal was to put it to area voters as a special capital plan bylaw. If approved all property owners in this specific region would repay the money to the city through additional taxes over a period of time (20 years). This is how many community centres and fieldhouses (run by field sport organizations) were financed mid-century. By the late 1970s park board capital plans reflected city-wide park and recreation needs and were paid for by collective taxes.

The point to be made here is that Kerrisdale residents are very close to their community facilities. Their joint "ownership" is palpable to them. Community Centre Associations like Kerrisdale's (KCCA) have been running the programming side of park board-owned centres for over a half century and by all accounts doing a good job of it. They retain the funds from room rentals and programs to hire instructors, and they make a profit which is further invested in their centres. In this way the KCCA has contributed considerable funds to build Vancouver's first senior centre and to permanently cover one of Vancouver's original outdoor pools enabling its use year round. In addition the KCCA ensures that indigent residents are able to participate in their programs free of charge.

Along comes a new style of management at city hall which under the guise of corporate efficiencies instructs the park board to amalgamate its park and recreation staff with city hall, pruning off positions left right and centre. Some of these changes may in fact be efficient, such as in accounting and information technology, but general erosion in expertise is inevitable. Now they are looking to alter joint operating agreements (JOAs) with these vital neighbourhood associations in order to be in charge of all the funds generated by them. The word on the street is that community centre associations generate over $17 million a year which presently is plowed back into each respective community and allocated as they deign. Under the new plan, those funds would go to city coffers and be allocated back to centres. The city says this is "fairer" and more "equitable" to those community centres which have generated less. I would purport it is a money grab by city staff who are funding a host of initiatives not approved by voters and at the expense of communities.

The attitude at city hall these days is that we have to run the city like a business and this includes park and recreation services. I disagree. Taxpayers do not mind their money subsidizing a swim or a skate for the greater good. That's why they pay taxes. A Vancouver Sun newspaper columnist recently asserted that Canada's only elected park board is arcane in this day and age and that community associations are some sort of hold-out from a past Vancouver need not recognize anymore. The way I see it we are all being set up for the park board to be eliminated and I'll just make an observation.

What does every visitor to the city say? This is a green paradise ringed by beaches and one of the most beautiful seawalls in the world, where there are recreation centres and parks mere blocks from residents. This happened not by accident but because Vancouver has a separately elected park board whose mandate is specific under the Vancouver Charter. City hall may hold the purse strings but they do not have the power to sell off parkland or indeed make any decisions relating to the park board mandate.

The power rests with the park board to deny and defy city hall managers and their new plans. Instead of wielding that power, the park board is being usurped. Power not taken is power lost. I would say 80 per cent of people voting for park commissioners and city councillors are not familiar with the candidates when they cast their ballots. Usually once elected these politicians rise up to their responsibilities and engage in a balancing act of separately elected offices. That has not happened over the past four years.

About 20 years ago the park commissioner from New York City visited Vancouver. His was an appointed position serving at the will of the mayor. While we drove him around the city visiting various park board facilities, he marvelled at our system. What he wouldn't give to have a Sunset nursery again where staff grow their own plants for parks and gardens. But he was most impressed with the elected board itself which is mandated to advocate for parks and recreation despite being placed in an adversarial position with city hall at times. "What I wouldn't give for that kind of power to protect parks," he said.

Should city hall get involved with the operations at grassroots, neighbourhood community centres? Should the park board be eliminated bit by bit while no one is watching? Should developers be allowed to forestall community amenity contributions because the city deems they are providing affordable housing? By the way, define affordable in the context of livable. Hmmm. I wonder.

Terri Clark is a Kerrisdale resident and former park board communications officer.

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