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Art gallery call for support strikes a nerve amongst letter writers

Council to vote on removing tax exemption for downtown gallery, overdose prevention site
Campbell River’s Overdose Prevention Site. Photo by Alistair Taylor/Campbell River Mirror

There has been an outpouring of support for the Campbell River Art Gallery in the face of punitive action by city council.

A call for letters of support by the gallery’s executive director Sara Lopez Assu has resulted in 142 letters being included on the agenda of the Thursday, Oct. 12 city council meeting and possibly more being added as late agenda package items. The Campbell River Mirror, meanwhile, has received letters to the editor in support of the gallery as well.

“Everyone’s pretty outraged at what has been done here,” Lopez Assu said.

At it’s Sept. 28 regular meeting, city council voted in favour of two motions to remove the Campbell River Art Gallery (CRAG) and Vancouver Island Mental Health Society (VIMHS – operators of the Overdose Prevention Site) from the bylaw which supports local community organizations that enhance the quality of life in the comunity. CRAG and VIMHS’ removal from the list of organizations to receive a Permissive Tax Exemption (PTE) is up for approval at the Oct. 12 meeting. The two organizations have been targetted because councillors said they were being ‘bad neighbours’ to other downtown businesses because they were supporting or not doing enough to discourage Campbell River’s unhoused population from frequenting their establishments. Coun. Ron Kerr put forward the two motions to remove the two organizations stating that they were requesting tax deferrals while operating “in a poor neighborly manner” and having “significant negative effects on our downtown community.”

READ MORE: Art gallery tax exemption hit; called poor neighbour, detriment to downtown

Kerr said council has limited means of changing these organizations’ behaviour but “that being said, we don’t have to approve tax deferrals. And we don’t have to give grants-in-aid. To me this is just rewarding poor behavior and poor neighborhood conduct.”

Kerr’s motions were supported by the majority of council with only Coun. Tanille Johnston voting against the motions. Coun. Susan Sinnott voted against the motion targetting the art gallery, specifically, and joined the majority by voting against the VIMHS tax examption.

After the Sept. 28 meeting, Lopez Assu issued an email the next day urging gallery supporters to write to city council objecting to the removal the Permissive Tax Exemption (PTE) for the CRAG and VIMHS.

The response has been significant with an outpouring of letters.

North Island-Powell River MP Rachel Blaney weighed in on the issue by sending a letter to council in support of the gallery.

“Throughout the years, the Campbell River Art Gallery has demonstrated their dedication and commitment and have contributed to a revitalization of our downtown core. With this, I offer my full support to this strong community partner and encourage council to reconsider their decision,” Blaney’s letter says.

The gallery requested an opportunity to speak at the Oct. 12 council meeting but was turned down, Lopez Assu said. The PTE bylaws go to a final vote at that meeting, leaving the CRAG and VIMHS with little else to do to counter council’s actions.

Lopez Assu said the financial impact will be significant. Losing the PTE will cost the gallery approximately $10,000 but the greater concern is that Coun. Kerr also alluded to not being obligated to give the organization a grant-in-aid either, which would cost the gallery $80,000.

“A lot of money that would make us have to close our doors,” Lopez Assu said.

Lopez Assu drew attention to the impact that would have on Campbell River’s downtown.

“We contribute to the local economy,” she said. “We contribute to the cultural scene, we provide opportunities for people to sell their products in our gallery shop, to facilitate programs. I think the letters speak for themselves in terms of the impact that we’ve had on this community. So shutting our doors in an attempt to, I don’t know, silence us or to solve a problem that we haven’t created is not going to solve anything at all.”

Lopez Assu said they have asked council explicitly what they expect the gallery to do about the downtown homelessness situation.

“In the two meetings that we’ve had with city staff over the course of three years, we asked them explicitly, ‘what is it that you would like us to do about people sleeping in our entrances at night?’” Lopez Assu said.

Council told them to ask them to move but that’s out of the gallery’s scope, she said, and it’s unsafe.

“Our responsibilities as tenants in the building end at the doors,” Lopez Assu said about the city-owned Centennial Building.

Councillors has also expressed annoyance at the gallery staff’s attitude towards the issue.

“I mean, that’s vague. And in a democratic society, I am of the belief that we are allowed to disagree. And that shouldn’t mean that we should be penalized by elected officials when we do have differences of opinion in terms of how to proactively move forward and make downtown better for everyone.”

READ MORE: Inaction created the current situation, not the art gallery

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