New Brunswick

Saint John 'at a crossroads' with arts and culture funding decisions, warns board

As the City of Saint John faces an unprecedented financial crisis, the arts community is warning council against cuts to arts and culture.

Council urged not to cut cultural affairs officer position, bur rather invest in growth opportunity

Shannon Merrifield says $1.3 billion will be spent on tourism and culture in New Brunswick over the next year and Saint John should not be left behind. (Julia Wright / CBC)

As the City of Saint John faces an unprecedented financial crisis, the arts community is warning council against cuts to arts and culture.

Members of the Community Arts Board argued during a presentation Monday night that spending on arts and culture will help contribute to the city's recovery.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this isn't a touchy feely thing," said Shannon Merrifield, owner of the Buckland Merrifield Gallery.

"The arts and culture industry is a real capital generator, which is directly responsible for investment and growth in our city," she said, citing an estimated 3:1 return.

Council is scrambling to find ways to save money. The draft 2018 budget, released earlier this month, projects a revenue drop of more than $2.5 million compared to last year and the city is more than $205 million in debt.

Merrifield and others fear the Cultural Affairs office will be eliminated when Bernard Cormier retires in March.

"I can tell you for certain [if] this position isn't renewed, you will be hurting our city," she said, describing Cormier as an "incredible stewart" for the community.

"He connects, supports and ensures the necessary dialogue happens between government and community," said Merrified.

If council cuts the position, Saint John will hold the dubious distinction of being the only city in Canada to do so, she said.

Other cities, such as Fredericton and Moncton, have invested in arts and culture staff and resources to capitalize on growth opportunities, said Merrified.

"The reason they do this isn't because it's frivolous. The reason they do this is because it would be irresponsible not to do so," she said.

The city is "at a crossroads," she warned.

Proposed restructuring

Merrifield and ​former arts board chair Michael Wennberg pitched to council a reorganization of the Cultural Affairs office and arts board.

They proposed the community development and planning department take over responsibility for both.

"Being part of the common clerk's office — with greatest respect to the common clerk — has never made sense," said Wennberg.

"Second — consistent with what both the city's arts policy and Plan SJ state — there must be a two-way commitment to greater collaboration and co-operation between them and the community planning department, Enterprise Saint John, Discover Saint John, Develop Saint John, Uptown Saint John, the growth office and the heritage development board," he said.

The other recommended change is to have the Saint John Arts Centre take over running the City of Saint John Gallery in the centre.

Council referred the report to its budget process.

Later in the evening, in a bid to save money, council narrowly voted to keep municipal offices in the office tower at 15 Market Sq., which has served as home to city hall since 1971.

The 15-year lease agreement, which includes renovations and a reduction in the number of floors occupied, is expected to save up to $700,000 annually.

Council is also considering a $2.5 million reduction in the amount of money allocated to protective services, split equally between police and fire services.

With files from Information Morning Saint John