Need for McPherson Playhouse questioned; Victoria mayor floats free ticket idea

Giving each Victoria resident one free ticket a year to a show at the McPherson Playhouse is being floated as a way of giving locals some value for their tax dollars.

Mayor Dean Fortin made the suggestion after Coun. Geoff Young said it would make more sense for Victoria to either close down or give the McPherson to arts groups than continue to operate it on its own.

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The city subsidizes the McPherson to the tune of $750,000 a year — which Young said works out to about $30 per ticket sold.

“I guess my feeling is that if I were convinced that this situation was going to continue to exist for years to come, my inclination would be not to support this budget and to pull the plug on this thing,” Young told Capital Regional District directors.

Giving the McPherson away would make more sense for Victoria taxpayers, he said. But because the facility is funded through the CRD, it’s not even been up for discussion at city hall.

“One of the options that we really should explore very seriously is giving it away,” Young said. “Giving it, in essence, to an arts group or a group of arts groups to me seems like not that unattractive an offer.”

The McPherson is owned by Victoria, but managed by the non-profit Royal and McPherson Theatres Society Board.

In 1999, the city succeeded in having the McPherson funded through the Capital Regional District, in the hope that other municipalities would view it as a regional facility and chip in to cover a portion of the costs. That has never happened.

While Victoria, Oak Bay and Saanich all contribute to the cost of operation of the Royal Theatre, only Victoria contributes to the McPherson.

Fortin said perhaps Victoria residents could qualify for a free show as a way of “cashing in the $30 credit that you have.”

“I actually think it’s something we should explore,” Fortin said in an interview. “In the circumstances where only Victorians are paying for it, why not explore it. … It will help put bums in seats and it will help support the arts.”

Theatre board member Paul Gerrard, a Saanich councillor, called the idea of offering free tickets to Victoria residents “an interesting concept” but said he didn’t know whether the board would agree.

He said arts groups don’t have the financial means to take over and run a facility like McPherson.

“Unfortunate, but they [the arts community] have very little funding,” Gerrard said.

Some work is already being done by the arts committee and society staff to look at McPherson utilization issues, said Diana Lokken, the CRD general manager corporate finance.

“Beyond that, we could certainly research some sort of credit that’s available,” Lokken said. “There’s some options we could have some discussions on and we’re happy to go to the City of Victoria to talk about what the options are.”

Young said the city could reduce the subsidy over time if it gave the building away. “What we would say is: ‘Here’s a building that would seat 900. You don’t have to pay the property taxes. Yes, there is some capital expenditure that is required, but we’ll leave a suitcase with $750,000 in the lobby for you. And for the next several years we’ll give you half a million dollars and then for 10 years after that we’ll give you $100,000 a year.’ ”

“That offer still leaves the city of Victoria taxpayers way ahead. We’re way better off doing that than continuing to put out $750,000 a year.”

Coun. Ben Isitt said the message the city is trying to send the CRD is the “meter is running” on the McPherson.

“Essentially, if we think in this region that there is a benefit to having cultural facilities that everyone accesses, then people have to step up to bat,” Isitt said.

bcleverley@timescolonist.com

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