The legend of MacEwan Hall expansion is the University of Calgary’s most unfortunate legacy.
Originally conceived as a vision by students for students, the project has shifted in scope, magnitude and direction several times over the last six years. Students who voted either in favour or against the extension of the "Purple Pleasure Palace" in 1995 have, for the most part, graduated. They left behind a generation of students who have witnessed delay after delay and graduated with the phrase "expansion" ringing in their ears as a catchphrase for inefficency and unfulfilled promises.
Among those most discouraged and disillusioned with the grandiose promises of justice for all are the inhabitants–former and current–of Old MacEwan Hall. Student media groups NUTV and CJSW were both included on the original expansion referendum ballot as beneficiaries, and both were promised new space by members of the 1995-96 Students’ Union executive. With the new ballroom now a scant two months from completion, both CJSW and NUTV now find themselves the victims of misunderstandings, funding shortfalls and divergent interpretations of history.
"We were kind of used as a poster child for expansion," said Tom Andriuk, NUTV Program Director. "The SU did not ask if we wanted to be included on the ballot for expansion. We were used to raise awareness about the project, first in that the SU never consulted us and then it became part of their campaign that they were going to give us space. If the proposal for expansion was to state what has actually happened, no one would have voted and it wouldn’t have passed."
The original referendum was held in October of 1995, concurrent with the SU by-election. Students were asked if they would support a $7 increase in SU fees which would support the MacEwan Hall and MacEwan Student Centre "improvement project." A detailed list of project priorities included new space offerings to CJSW and NUTV. The results: 592 voted in favour of the increase and 503 against.
"I look back at what the intent of the [Students’ Legislative] council was at that time and it was really fairly explicit in terms of the expansion and [the priorities were] the Ballroom, CJSW and NUTV," said Kate Kimberley, SU President in 1995-96. "Any project takes on some changes over time, but I think it’s at best a bit uninformed and at worst a bit disingenuous for any party, whether it’s the SU or any other group to suggest that the intent of the ballot was otherwise."
Despite the promises and best intentions of the 1995-96 executive, CJSW and NUTV have not received the expected benefit from MacEwan Hall Expansion. Although both have been offered new space on the third floor of the building shell to the north of MacEwan Hall, the offer extends to no more than space, undeveloped and non-functional for any organization with their technological needs.
The Expansion and Redevelopment Project falls under the portfolio of each year’s SU Vice-President Operations and Finance. Current SU Vice-President Operations and Finance Natasha Dhillon pointed out the difficulties in making decisions when faced with a six-year-old mandate.
"None of us were here when the original referendum passed," she explained. "The only thing that [the SU] can go on is the documented, minuted stuff that we have in our files. That’s how we know how we have to proceed with expansion and redevelopment. So the things that were predominant on the [expansion] poster, we’re working through that list and we’re doing exactly what it said. CJSW and NUTV will be offered space."
NUTV Executive Director Kevin Allen countered that to simply offer space was not honouring the intent of the original expansion mandate.
"We were promised new space that we wouldn’t have to pay for," he said. "The SU thinks they’re fulfilling that promise by giving us a shell because they never said ‘new developed space.’ But any rational person would know that it’s new space with wiring and lights and walls."
"I think you have to provide the same quality to any of the parties that you’re dealing with," she said. "If you’re building the new pub or the new ballroom up to these wonderful specifications, why aren’t you doing that for your student services?"
Allen pointed out that after the referendum passed in 1995, Kimberley sent a letter to the CJSW and NUTV Board of Directors to allay concerns over the increasing price tag of the project. The letter was received by both groups as a guarantee that they would not be expected to pay for the new space they would be offered.
The letter reads: "The Students’ Union will not require any financial contribution from NUTV to finance the cost of the proposed expansion of MacEwan Student Centre…in the executive’s decision that NUTV is regarded as an important student service that in fact may be able to expand and result in improved student accomodation, the SU will not require an annual contribution from NUTV."
Dhillon disagreed that the letter excuses NUTV and CJSW from any financial contribution, pointing to the discrepancy between "expansion" and "developement."
"What had been in discussion at that point was having an annual fee that NUTV would have to do for just the expansion of new space," she said. "It was decided they would not have to do that. The expansion is not development of inside space, it’s expansion of the space. So we’ve read the entire thing and checked back in the minutes and that’s how we’ve interpreted it. If [Kimberley] meant something different, it would have had to be written that way."
Kimberley emphatically clarified her words.
"Without a doubt, the 1995-96 executive did not intend for NUTV or CJSW to pay for the costs of drywall or other basic redevelopment costs," she declared. "Instead we hoped to provide each student organization with space that would enable them to expand their offerings and subsequent student involvement. It may be that financially this is no longer possible, but I would be disheartened to learn if that is the case because it was not our executive’s nor council’s intent. I fully support and respect the discretion of the current SU executive in setting the appropriate priorities regarding expansion issues. Having said that, should new priorities or directions arise which are modifications of earlier positions taken by executives, which I believe to be the case here, it is likely best to acknowledge and explain the reasons for such changes, rather than revise or reinterpret the intent of past decisions."
Andriuk and Allen agreed that incurring some cost of the redevelopment is not unreasonable but objected to the notion of footing the entire bill.
"When I first arrived in 2000, there was no talk of cost, but we were seeing blueprints and being told we could expand into the old Gauntlet space," explained Allen. "If we wanted things above and beyond our current space we would have to make a contribution. But that changed somehow overnight and they put this shell proposal forward to give us new space, but there’s half a million dollars of infrastructure that we’ll have to do. So the idea is that they’ve run out of money and are fobbing off the responsibility of finishing our space."
Former SU VP Op-Fi Amanda Affonso, who held the position from 1998-2000, disagreed and explained that during her two-year term, the understandings of financial contributions were very clear.
"The intention was to create a space in the redevelopment and expansion plan for CJSW and NUTV whereby, the Students’ Union would build the shell and the media group would be responsible for interior plans," she said. "CJSW and NUTV would build their space to accommodate their needs. Each media group was fiscally responsible for the development of the space. The Students’ Union would pay for the shell to be built, but the financial responsibility lay with the media group to develop their space."
Andriuk and Allen countered, pointing out that as of 1997, it was only mentioned as a possibility that part of the cost of redevelopment would have to be incurred by CJSW and NUTV.
"It was stated [in 1997] that it was possible to make a financial contribution but it was never stated that we had to," said Andriuk. "It was more of a warning. Amanda [Affonso] also warned us but it was never formally addressed. We were warned of a contribution but never told we’d have to pay for the whole thing."
Allen added that NUTV has no documentation of the requirement for the financial contribution and pointed out that as every VP Op-Fi sits on the NUTV Board of Directors, the opportunity was present for the requirement to be communicated.
Currently, both CJSW and NUTV reside in locations that put them at a disadvantage in terms of fulfilling their student mandates, but have resigned themselves to a financially bereft future, though not devoid of all possibility.
"We don’t have a lot of options," said Allen. "If [the SU] says they have no money, how am I going to prove they do have money? We can try to lobby for the best deal, but if they were really operating with full integrity, they’d be providing our space because they promised it to the students in 1995. There’s been some concession, the SU has talked about doing fundraisers to raise funds from our new space. So we have unlimited time to move in and they’ll start providing cash in a kind of partnership."
Dhillon agreed that the situation was not hopeless.
"We’re not hanging [CJSW and NUTV] out to dry," she emphasized. "We want to do everything we can to ensure that they’re going to have an awesome space, we want to fundraise with them. From the information we have, they were supposed to be offered new space which is what we’ve done. We would like to take that one step further and help them turn that space into something they can absolutely benefit from. That is our goal."
CJSW Station Manager Chad Saunders declined extensive comment on the subject, but asked the rhetorical question, "Why would you plant a garden without knowing what the seeds are?"
Kimberley expressed the hope that the value of student services would not be overlooked by the SU in their negotiations with NUTV and CJSW.
"I understand the SU needs revenues to support the services, but I think the whole point is that any revenues that are generated have to be in support of student services," she pointed out. "[CJSW and NUTV] are very valuable in the sense of the opportunity to get involved in campus life. So I take the mindset that it’s the opportunity to expand the kind of things they can really do. They really do provide value to students, and the way to expose that even more is to fulfill why expansion was required in the first place. I think what is required is for all the parties involved to get together and clarify, to look at what the intent was, to put money aside for a moment and to bring everyone together to an understanding."
The legend of MacEwan Hall expansion is the University of Calgary’s most unfortunate legacy.