City coughs up, again

Vernon's purchase of flower shop sprouts questions

Taxpayers may wonder what’s going on at Vernon city hall after another chunk of downtown real estate was snapped up.

After all, in the last seven years, the city has acquired the Coldstream Hotel and two adjacent properties for $2.1 million, the Vernon Medical Clinic site for $1.4 million and now the Vernon Flower Shop for $315,000.

With such major financial investments, you’d think there would be intensive use of these publicly owned lands. But instead, the Coldstream Hotel parcel is a parking lot while the former medical clinic lands are a mix of parking and walkway. When asked about the intended use for the flower shop, the answer provided by council is: there isn’t one.

“That’s the area we want to do some redeveloping in,” said Coun. Jack Gilroy.

“We will have more parking downtown until there is a plan for the land.”

Mayor Wayne Lippert has suggested the  property could eventually evolve into a park and an art walk. Not a bad idea but is that a wise use of $315,000 when many residents continue to struggle with the recession?

It’s more than likely that the city does have a plan for the site but isn’t in a position to reveal the details just yet.

Using my crystal ball, I would suspect that there’s a direct link between the city’s latest acquisition and the ongoing demands of the Greater Vernon Museum and the Vernon Public Art Gallery for a new home.

In some ways the setting would make sense as it’s located across 31st Avenue from Cenotaph Park — where the gallery’s recent Midsummer’s Eve of the Arts fundraiser was held — and near murals for two of Vernon’s legendary artists — Sveva Caetani and Axel Ebring. A cultural corridor would automatically appear.

But the museum and art gallery aren’t packing their bags for the flower shop just yet, because of some outstanding issues.

Primarily, the city is waiting to see if its partners in parks, recreation and culture — Coldstream and the two electoral areas — will come to the table for capital and operating costs. If they opt to sit on the sidelines, will Vernon go it alone with a project that benefits everyone?

A go-slow approach has also become necessary as a process that was initiated by the art gallery has recently been joined by the museum. Both groups must sit down and consider their space requirements and then determine if there are areas of shared interest such as a lobby, education rooms and climate control.

Finally, the city wants to ensure all of its ducks are in a row before potentially going to the public to borrow money. That makes sense after the public whipping of council and staff took place in 2007 — a $30 million plan for city offices, a library and art gallery was first shot down by a petition and then during a referendum.

As mentioned earlier, if the flower shop site is destined to become the art gallery and the museum, it could likely work.

However, it is important to point out that the reason for purchasing the Coldstream Hotel property in 2004 was to create a cultural showcase with the gallery and museum. That concept was subsequently abandoned for one that sees residential and commercial activities spurring downtown revitalization.

The problem is that no developers have been banging down the doors at city hall and the Coldstream Hotel continues to be an expensive parking lot.

Before using tax dollars to buy yet more property, city council should have looked at its existing land inventory to meet the long neglected needs of the art gallery and museum.

– Richard Rolke is the senior reporter at The Morning Star. He writes a weekly column for the newspaper going beyond the headlines.