The federal government has pledged financial support for an ambitious expansion of Arts Commons and the construction of Calgary’s first major contemporary art gallery — a move the province dismissed Friday as “pre-election posturing.”
Calgary Centre MP Kent Hehr said his government would contribute $80 million for Arts Commons and $30 million for Contemporary Calgary, contingent upon contributions from the province and the city.
“Our federal government understands the importance of arts to building community,” said Hehr at a press conference at the Jack Singer Concert Hall Friday.
“Not only does it create a sense of story and shared values, it allows us to attract business and people to start their lives here in this city.”
Federal funding for the $240-million expansion of Arts Commons is contingent upon the province and the city agreeing to contribute the remaining $135 million through a previously approved community revitalization levy (CRL).
The second part of Friday’s announcement included a big boost for the proposed Contemporary Calgary gallery project in the west end of downtown. Federal funding would cover $30 million of the cost — also contingent upon matching funds from the provincial government.
But in a statement Friday afternoon from the province, Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda appeared to throw cold water on the idea.
“This is nothing more than pre-election posturing by the federal government,” Panda said, pointing out that the joint federal-provincial funding source identified for Contemporary Calgary, the Investing in Canadian Infrastructure Program (ICIP), is already oversubscribed.
“(ICIP) has received over 700 applications, far exceeding Alberta’s available funding allocation. All of the projects are being reviewed and eligible projects will be considered for funding as part of Budget 2020. Our new government needs time to assess the submissions in relation to the priorities of our upcoming provincial budget. We are going to allow this review process to run its course.”
Funding for the Arts Commons expansion, however, would not come from ICIP. Federal support for Arts Commons is instead contingent upon the province and the city agreeing to relinquish $135 million in property tax revenue through the Rivers District community revitalization levy.
Last December, the NDP government approved an extension of the CRL first created to fund the revitalization of the East Village and redevelopment in east Victoria Park. The new provincial government has not yet confirmed if it will honour the previous government’s commitment to the CRL.
The Arts Commons expansion was tentatively approved by city council last March as part of a strategy to fund four major projects, including the BMO Centre expansion, the new NHL arena and the multi-sport field house.
Phase one of the project, which encompasses a new 1,200-seat theatre facility, two smaller theatres and rehearsal space could cost $239.7 million, according to an estimate that includes escalation costs and contingencies.
“The Government of Canada has put money on the table, $110 million to ensure that arts and culture thrives in this city, of course we need provincial government funding to be a part of this,” said Hehr.
“I know that the new government should be on board with this as we are aware that it attracts business to the city, it attracts community building. I don’t see this as necessarily being a hurdle.”
The second phase will involve a complete renovation of the existing 34-year-old facility to address approximately $71-million in critical infrastructure issues. The cost of the second phase renovation was previously pegged at around $204 million.
“A project of this magnitude is really going to require support from all three levels of government,” said Arts Commons interim co-CEO Greg Epton. “This is an important step but the journey is ongoing.”
Detailed design work for the Arts Commons project could be completed in early 2020, Epton said, with the possibility of shovels in the ground as early as 2021.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi welcomed the federal announcement Friday, calling it a commitment to a project that “Calgarians want to see completed.”
“Now, we’re looking forward to working with our partners at the Government of Alberta within their processes to solve the rest of this puzzle and get this project going,” Nenshi said in a statement.
Proponents of both projects say they have the potential to drive economic growth in the city.
Organizers behind the proposed $117-million Contemporary Calgary project in the west end of downtown say the city is long overdue for a facility dedicated to contemporary art. Calgary is the only city of its size in North America without a major modern art gallery, said Contemporary Calgary CEO David Leinster.
“(The federal funding) means everything to Contemporary Calgary. It’s just such a huge gust of wind in our sails,” Leinster said Friday. “We’ve got a really important project in the west end of Calgary that’s going to really transform that area of our city, bringing Calgary’s first major modern and contemporary art gallery.”
Plans to transform the former Centennial Planetarium into a contemporary art gallery have been in the works for more than a decade. Federal and provincial funding could potentially cover $60 million of the cost. The city has already contributed $25 million to complete the first phase of the project. A further $32 million would come from the private sector.