Before and After: Impacts of the “Hall Tax” on Gorge Hall

It has now been four and a half years since the 2019 referendum in which a solid majority of Cortes Islanders voted in favour of bylaw 341. This bylaw established a property tax service that would provide basic operational support for the islands two community halls.

Image credit: A Christmas Market in Gorge Hall – Roy L Hales photo

Funding would be available to the community halls strictly for operational expenses, — such as BC Hydro bills, internet service, consumables and supplies, insurance, VIHA compliance, and so on. The money could not be used to pay salaries, to make major capital improvements, or to host events.

The annual property tax increase for the homeowner would vary according to property value. But the average was predicted to be about $80 to $100 per year.

The referendum decisively resolved, in a 75/25 vote, a debate over hall funding which had divided the community for over a decade. Opponents of the measure at various times expressed concerns that the community halls were in effect a “private club” seeking public funding; that the tax revenues could be misused if approved; that the additional tax burden would be onerous or even disastrous for older residents; and/or that this measure represented a tragic end to the traditional culture of volunteerism and philanthropy in the Cortes community.

Cortes Currents Archive: Hall Tax

Gorge Hall as a Warming Station during a cold snap — photo by Kate Maddigan

Almost five years later, in early April 2024, Currents interviewed Izabelle Perry — long time board member and officer of the Whaletown Community Club which owns and operates the Gorge Hall — about the long-term impacts of the Hall Tax funding. This extensive interview is divided into four radio segments, each one focussed on a general topic; the series will air April 15th-18th on CKTZ.

I guess I never really thought about it that way but it’s like, because we were in survival mode, we were like, “this is our little club,” and you know, there’s like 25 people that care about it. But really, when you open it up — the door’s open! — then people come, and they get excited about it. About being included in the community. And that’s one of the things that I’ve heard the most in the last two years, is people saying, “I feel like I’m part of this,” which is… when you hear it from someone that’s lived on the street for, you know, 10 or 12 years that has never really felt at home anywhere… and they tell you that they feel like they’re part of a community? And they feel like they belong? that is the greatest feeling.

Gorge Hall Kitchen

Due to the length of this interview, only representative excerpts will be presented here (along with some photographs of Gorge Hall taken at the time of interview). For the full story, readers are encouraged to listen to the podcasts (below).

In the course of the interview, Izabelle explains that the annual operational support funding from SRD has enabled the hall

  • to catch up on years of deferred maintenance;
  • to pay a new part-time manager;
  • to make community events “by donation” (payment optional) and hall rentals very affordable for local informal events;
  • to implement cost-savings measures such as LED lighting;
  • to keep up with the escalating costs of complying with VIHA regulations;
  • to spruce up the stage and green room, winning compliments from visiting performers;
  • and to offer more events to the community, from youth programmes to dances and concerts.

Part 1: Before & After — the Hall’s financial situation pre-2019 vs today

Part 2: What Changed? — why were the halls in such dire financial straits by about 2015? why could Gorge Hall not just go on as it had since it was founded?

Part 3: What’s Been Fixed? — what maintenance and improvement has been made possible by the hall tax funding?

Part 4: What’s Happening Now? — what events and programmes are being offered as of 2024, and how much community engagement is there?

Main room at Gorge Hall, with new paint & lights

Life before operational funding: “like a single mom with way too many kids.”

CC: So Izabelle, what’s the before/after picture like, here in Whaletown? What has changed, from your point of view as a WCC officer, since SRD began to collect funds via a property tax service and distribute them to the community halls?

IP: I just remember — because I was Treasurer of the WCC — I remember what it felt like financially for the WCC before the hall tax. Which was very scary, especially for January through March — basically from Christmas, to when we would get confirmation that we got the Gaming Grant. We were just hoping that we would get the Gaming Grant, because we never had enough money in savings to get us through a whole fiscal year. There was one year actually, 2017 or maybe 2018, where we didn’t get the Gaming Grant and we had to cancel shows, we had to cut back on what we could spend on Easter and Halloween…

When I came in as Treasurer in, I think, 2016 or 2017, the way that the Whale Town Community Club functioned was quite different than it is now… because it was always scraping by.

It was kind of like a single mom with way too many kids, that doesn’t make enough money to cover the bare necessities — let alone a turkey on Christmas. Like, it just felt like there was no end in sight. Sometimes we would have money in the savings account and it just felt like, how long is that going to last for?

It was very hard to make like good financial decisions — because I’m so community minded, I just wanted to throw parties and to have events — like have an outdoor barbecue. And it always came down to, “Oh, we don’t have the money for that. we can’t even buy burgers to have a community event.”

New storage lockers in Gorge Hall Kitchen

Life before operational funding: “it was really sad to see so few things being done”

CC: I remember during those very lean years, when funding was so very scarce, we were able to do only the barest minimum of maintenance and upkeep. There was a lot of deferred maintenance. The hall was starting to look a little rundown, a little shabby.

IP: For a lot of people, it was really sad to see so few things being done to the hall; there were a lot of things, little things, you know. Like there’s this leak that was in the roof, but like we didn’t even want to investigate the leak, in case it turned into taking out a whole wall. Like, if you don’t open it, if you don’t fix it, then you don’t know what’s going on. So it’s fine.

It’s only a few drops when it rains a certain way and the wind is blowing a certain way. As it turned out it only cost $75 to fix it, but at the time we just didn’t want to know what was behind that leak. And there’s, there’s, A few other things, like we couldn’t even change the lighting to LED. Which would have saved money — but we couldn’t afford the lights, and we couldn’t afford the electrician to come and do it. So there’s a lot of small things like that.

We’ve been talking about changing the lighting for — since I’ve been on Cortes — like “Oh these lights don’t work, we’re gonna change them.” But the ballast would go off and we just like replace the one light — but never switch to LED because we couldn’t afford it. And so when we got funding, that was one of the first things that we ended up doing. And yeah, it’s been really great. And the light bulbs don’t go out as much as they used to. I used to replace so many light bulbs!

New proscenium paint at Gorge Hall

Why is funding even needed? how did it get so expensive to run a community hall?

CC: How much is WCC actually getting annually from the SRD tax service? Do we get everything we ask for? I seem to recall it’s about $18K-$20K a year?

IP: I would say more like $17K that they actually give us. I feel like we ask for a lot, and then they give us… enough. It feels like our list is about five pages long, and three pages get funded by SRD, which is not bad. It’s like 60 percent, that’s pretty good.

CC: It seemed like for many years it was relatively cheap to run a community hall. Then at some point, in just a decade or so, it started to get much more expensive. What happened?

IP: It felt like all of a sudden, we were not invisible anymore. Like maybe on Cortez we were still invisible [laughs] but like to the outside world — all of a sudden we had to pay insurance, and our insurance went up; and then our water has to go through this strenuous process, it has to be tested constantly, and then every five years we need to do like this big huge test that costs so much money.

Okay, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t cost a lot of money — but we don’t run in the hundreds of thousands a year, we run in like the 20 thousand a year, so when you have like a test that costs $800, that’s a lot of money, that’s a very big percentage of how much we have in our bank account. And so it just felt like we just had so many more rules that we had to follow. And then the insurance company comes and starts asking questions — “Oh, well that means that your insurance is going to go up.”

We had to actually stall the SRD — well, VIHA — because they wanted us to put this water system in within, I think it was a two month time frame; and that water system they wanted us to put in was $20,000. Now $20,000 is how much we spend on everything att the WCC in a year — and they wanted us to find that money within two months, but also have it installed within two months and tested at the end of that. And I think this was in August. I mean it was impossible.

High tech water treatment system required by VIHA, Gorge Hall

Life after funding: a new hall manager

CC: It seems like the halls are operating in a whole other world now. We had to totally remodel our kitchen, now we have these ongoing costs for water testing and certification and a very complex treatment system. It’s all getting very complicated and hard to keep on top of with a rotating crew of informal volunteers.

IP: Yeah. And SRD funding made it possible for us to reallocate funds that we used to spend just keeping the lights on. We could unlock some funds to offer an actual paid position for a hall manager. When Howie was ready to step down we put it out to the community and got several applicants… and we settled on Taylor Christmas. And she is awesome. Transitioning from Howie was scary… because he just knew how everything worked, and he was so dedicated and he was always there, I mean for me Howie was the hall. So we made sure that Taylor was willing to be the Hall, because that’s what we were used to with Howie who did such a great job for all those years. As a WCC board member you don’t want to have to worry about the hall, we need someone as hall manager who can be on top of programming and calendar, know how all the systems work — Taylor has made it possible for us to hold more events, to host more rentals, do more outreach, we have more than one thing happening in a day. Taylor has taken all that on plus doing all the water testing.

Fireside Lounge, Gorge Hall

Life after funding: has volunteerism declined?

CC: What impact would you say the funding has had on volunteerism? Has there been a decline? How much of the overall project is volunteer at this point?

IP: Well, everything, except for the hall manager. The hall tax doesn’t pay any wages. So the volunteering hasn’t changed. In Whaletown, what has changed is who volunteers. When I first started, it was older people, a lot of people that had been involved with the hall for a really long time.

And I feel — well actually I don’t just feel, [older] people have actually told me — that they’re happy that younger people are getting involved, because then they can just attend events. They don’t have to help with cleanup. They don’t have to help with setup. And a lot of people are happy to just bake a cake for the bake sale and not, you know, not have to sell it.

And I remember [in the old days] the day after the Christmas Bazaar — which is now the Winter Bazaar — but I remember me and Noah and two other people, well, three sometimes. It was Chris Knapper, Keith Muir, and me and Noah the day after the Bazaar. And that’s what the cleanup crew looked like. And this last year, there were like 12 people here! and it changes everything when you’ve got a whole bunch of people. First of all, it’s way more fun. it’s way more fun and it goes so much quicker. And it doesn’t seem like a chore when all you have to do is 45 minutes instead of five hours. And yeah, it’s been like that a lot this year. Like, a lot of people have shown up for volunteering.

Gorge Hall set up for Parents and Tots, photo by Serene Watson

Life after funding: how active is the Hall in 2024?

CC: So how active is the Hall now? What does the calendar look like? How much engagement is there?

IP: Well Mondays every month, Monday morning is food bank distribution. On Tuesdays there’s a kids’ thing, I think it might be AIL, Adventures in Leadership? On Wednesday there’s some kind of seniors yoga, sit-down yoga, anyway an easier yoga. And Wednesday afternoons there’s another kids’ thing, the Teen Szene. Thursdays is Parents and Tots from 10:30 am to maybe 1:30 or 2 pm. Fridays is Tai Chi in the morning and then Game Night in the evening. Saturdays there is yoga in the morning and then in the evening it’s a rotating activity, every two weeks is either karaoke or jam night or a show. Or sometimes the show will be on Friday night. We’ve set it up so there is always something happening on Friday and Saturday nights at the Gorge Hall. And then on Sunday, that’s cleaning day, and also the day that we rent the kitchen out to people.

I’m super excited about what’s going on right now because of the people that are involved in the Whaletown Community Club — and the people that are excited about what’s happening. People show up to different events, that I didn’t even know lived here. I’ve lived here for 20 years and I had never seen them before.

I had someone tell me at Pancake Breakfast that basically they’ve seen that in the Hall — where there’s like an ebb and flow, where there’s a certain lull, where nothing gets done and nothing happens — and then other times where like, everything is happening: things are getting fixed, there’s a really cool energy and everybody wants to go out. And they’re saying that right now, that’s how they feel. They feel like there’s stuff happening and things are getting fixed and it looks good and there’s, like, new picnic tables outside and there’s a designated fire pit… Just little things, but enough that it makes people want to come in.

Games for Game Night, Gorge Hall
Cleaned and repainted Green Room, Gorge Hall
Ready for Movie Nights when someone wants to organise them…

More Podcasts:

The Wheat and the Barley playing in Gorge Hall – submitted photo
MOsaic’s presentation ay Gorge Hall – Roy L Hales photo

[Photos by author except where otherwise credited. Full disclosure: De Clarke is a long-time member of the WCC Board and a local Whaletown resident, and strongly supported Bylaw 341.]