Cancellation of observatory project has MHA members looking for answers

Representatives from the Mission Heritage Association say the district’s two-page press release is flawed.

Brian Antonson

The cancellation of Mission’s observatory project has many members of the Mission Heritage Association shaking their heads in dismay and looking for answers.

Representatives from the MHA say the district’s two-page press release — accompanied by 37 pages of studies and expert reports explaining the concerns and deficiencies of the project, and other building projects at Fraser River Heritage Park — is flawed.

Brian Antonson, president of the board of directors of the MHA, said the district’s claim that there were no building permits for the observatory is true. However, he said council and staff knew exactly what the MHA was doing and had no issues with construction — or at least the previous council didn’t.

The MHA’s contract to maintain Fraser River Heritage Park is coming to an end on Dec. 31, 2015. Council has announced it will not be renewing the deal and raised concerns not only about the observatory, but over other buildings being constructed on the site.

Lloyd Rash, a volunteer at Fraser River Heritage Park, has overseen most of those building projects. A former District of Mission employee, Rash said the MHA had verbal, if not written permission to begin construction of the observatory.

He explained that after getting council’s approval to start the project and creating a structural design, he went to take out a building permit.

But there were still some questions about egress and, for safety and evacuation routes, it was decided that a second exit was needed. A few other minor changes were also needed to the design.

Rash said the drawings were kept by the district  and a file was created. However, he never asked for the file number.

With the weather cooperating and volunteer workers available, Rash said they asked the building department if they could dig the foundation, even though the permit had not yet been issued. He claims he was told to “go ahead” as long as the drawings were in to the department.

“They already had the structural drawings, and it was the foundation – that wasn’t about to change. So we went from there. As opportunities came up, we put the building up,” explained Rash.

“We kept in constant touch with the building department to let them know what we were doing. We had the engineers, inspectors inspect the building as we were putting it up. The engineer has to sign off on it in the end anyway, so we used their inspectors, which is the normal way you would do that. So that’s where we got to where we’re at.”

Rash believes the construction project wasn’t unusual.

“Staff has worked very closely with us in the past and given us some latitude on different occasions and understood what we were doing and what our final outcome was. That’s all ended now,” said Rash.

The district’s release also indicated the MHA business plan was inadequate. Mission Mayor Randy Hawes referred to it as “smoke and mirrors” – a comment to which Antonson took offence.

“We believe we have built in a lot of cushioning for this,” Antonson said in regard to the plan and its revenue potential.

The MHA forecast having 179 days of the year where two school classes, of 30 students each, could attend.

The total comes to just over 10,000 students a year.

“There are 17,000 interested students in the catchment area. That’s a 7,000-student cushion,” he said.

Antonson concedes that the report on the project prepared for the district raised some good points. However, on the financial side, it calculated costs for paying staff.

“We  don’t do that. It would be done by volunteers and they don’t seem to get that.”

In 2014, the MHA tallied 9,464 volunteer hours at the park. Multiply those hours by $41, which Antonson said “would be the minimum CUPE city rate” and it becomes $388,000 saving.

“It’s fine to say you can’t run the observatory with volunteers. Well, in actual fact, everybody else does it.”

He referred to the Mission sports parks and the Clarke Foundation Theatre as examples of venues that rely on volunteers.

Also raising concern for Antonson is the district’s claim that the Fraser Valley Astronomers Society has withdrawn its support of the project, which he said is untrue.

Paul Greenhalgh, president of the society, contacted The Record by email and confirmed Antonson’s rebuttal of the district claim.

Greenhalgh said the district’s comments are “highly incorrect.”

“No delegation from the FVAS (Fraser Valley Astronomers Society) has even met with the mayor or spoken to Mission city council. We have not withdrawn support for the observatory. We find it highly unfortunate that the project is being met with such negativity,” he wrote.

As for the other building projects, which the district said have fire and building code problems, the MHA is not arguing those points.

“The whole purpose of what has happened with the building construction over the last couple of years has been to facilitate a requirement from the municipality to bring the Blackberry Kitchen up to building and fire codes. So that’s the whole crux of what we’re doing,” said Rash.

“We believe that the building issues are relatively minor,” added Antonson.

On May 1, the district told the MHA to stop construction at the park.

Don Brown, manager of the MHA, said many of the district’s concerns could have been resolved by now.

“If we hadn’t been told to stop, a lot more would have been done and some of the things that are being pointed out would not exist. They would have been fixed.”

Brown doesn’t see the district changing its mind and renewing the contract, but he doesn’t want the MHA to go quietly.

“I feel that what we’re after right now is the truth,” said Brown, adding that the MHA did nothing wrong.

It’s a difficult struggle for MHA members.

“It’s hard to build up any enthusiasm to keep fighting. My community spirit has really been undermined,” said Rash.