CONCERNS ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THE LATVIAN CANADIAN CULTURAL CENTRE
The LCCC Board answers to members questions:
The LCCC Board would like to thank Egils Fogels for his letter to the Board listing his, and other LCCC member concerns, about the future of the Latvian Centre. We share many of the same concerns that he brought to our attention. We share the same goals, the preservation and improvement of The Centre as well as Latvian culture. We hope that we are able to work together, as one large family, to ensure that we achieve our collective goals. You will find the answers below laid out in the same way as they were addressed to us:
Q :It was clear at the AGM that the Centre was losing money at year end 2019. The amount, however, was not that large (-$26,552) compared to a profit the year earlier (+$172,516). Of course, it is much worse now with COVID-19, Eglinton Ave construction, flooding, etc.
The questions are: What is the Board going to do to correct the financial situation? In our opinion, closing Birches will make matters even worse financially. What are the some of the options open to the Centre: mortgage; government assistance; partnership with companies; schools or other institutions; campaigning for donations?
A: As discussed in the last AGM the Latvian Centre’s business model became untenable some time ago due to (among many factors); rising costs, due largely in part by the increase in minimum wage, outdated facilities, a shrinking Latvian population in Toronto, construction on Eglington, etc. Our financial reports for the past 3 years show expenses rising rapidly proportional to revenues. Since at least 2016 the Latvian Centre has lost money from an operational perspective, and these losses are accelerating; ($88K) in the year ending June 30, 2017, ($107K) in 2018, ($295K) in 2019. The net income figures that you are referencing are only positive due to generous bequests The Centre has received. Further, the Birches has only provided minimal contributions to overall revenue, and on its own lost nearly ($100K) in 2019. This was before any changes to staff or operations.
The Board is taking action to bring our finances to order. Importantly, we are reducing fixed costs as much as possible. To fulfill our mandate of providing a home for Toronto’s Latvian society and offering cost-free facilities for the many local Latvian cultural and educational groups, the Board has retained a minimal Centre staff of 3, and eliminated services that drove our losses, most notably the Birches. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into our plans as we have temporarily lost 3 regular sources of rental income, and the Centre remains closed to all but the essential service Northern Birch CU. As COVID-19 restrictions lift we hope to regain sufficient recurring revenues to offset our minimized expense base. If COVID-19 closures drag on longer than expected, or if our anticipated revenue sources fail to return, the Board will continue to make financial adjustments until we reach a break-even financial state.
Importantly, the Board will continue to offer Centre facilities to be used by Latvians. Food will be either catered in at a cost or made in-house by volunteers. In short, we will be returning to our roots of encouraging active community involvement in the Centre. The Board is confident that greater community involvement in the Centre operations will strengthen Toronto’s Latvian Society.
Q: In our opinion, improved marketing is extremely important and would help increase rental and other income. Recently some larger scale in-house signage has been well received, but this does not reach out to the larger community such as nearby businesses and the public at large.
The questions are: Who is responsible for marketing initiatives at the Centre, and what is the Centre’s marketing plan? We realize this is not an easy task and has often failed in the past but is now more important than ever.
A: Marketing initiatives are taken care of largely by the Office Manager, Mareks and General Manger, Meta, with oversight and input from the board. The GM, has been exploring many options and strategies ranging from online postings to event planning groups to increase our exposure to prospective tenants and short-term rentals. As the COVID-19 situation evolves and restrictions are lifted, we are looking for additional help in the marketing area from someone with professional experience and industry knowledge. The Board feels that this is the best option considering the importance of marketing to all current and future projects.
Public engagement with the Board
Q: We do not find that the Board is very open with the public. There appears to be some level of secrecy even among Board members themselves, especially with respect to the staff resources. We are not aware of any discussion at all with the community about its concern with respect to the closure of the Birches, a drastic step taken unilaterally by the Board without consultation with the members at large. A general Meeting would have been advisable.
Rarely are Board members seen at public Centre gatherings such as “Azaids”, TLPA meetings and concerts. The Board often seems disconnected from the members and is absent at functions of the Centre. The Board has made some attempts to engage the public with flyers and questionnaires. We are not aware of all the roles assigned to each Board member, for example is there now a human resources committee responsible for recent firings? Is there a building committee?
In times of adversity, leaders engage their members (for example, Trudeau daily).
The questions are: How is the Centre engaging in discourse with its own members, staff, volunteers and also the larger Latvian community in Toronto and Canada?
A: The Board does not find that there are any levels of secrecy among board members. We understand that certain decisions that the Board has made are unpopular but would like to reiterate that none of these decisions were taken lightly. Due to the pressing nature of the problems The Centre has been facing, the Board has been forced to act quickly to ensure the survival of the organization as a whole. The Board was elected by the membership to make decisions in the best interest of The Centre on their behalf, as appropriate. The situation is as such, if the Board did not take the drastic step to close the Birches when it did, The Centre would have been bankrupt as early as June. We appreciate the comments and concerns of our members and stakeholders, but as fiduciaries, who are required to act in the best interest of the organization, we were forced to make the difficult decision of closing the Birches without outside consultation. The sole motivation behind this was to prolong survival of The Centre as long as possible.
The roles of each board member and all information pertaining to committees is and always has been available on our website: https://latviancentre.org/latviesu-centrs/centra-valde/. The Board continues to plan the future of the Latvian Centre and as the pandemic situation evolves, we are looking for the earliest possible date for a general meeting to discuss future plans as well as answer any questions regarding the current challenges facing The Centre.
Q: The essence of Umurkumurs has been debated for many years. Should Umurkumurs be a source of income ($150 profit last year) or is it a meeting place for members who gather to eat, drink, attend lectures, and relax. No matter what the purpose, the current state of Umurkumrs is clearly a disaster. Admittedly, there was a flood. The insurance issue was not resolved in a timely manner. Yet the delays to repair seem inordinately long and repairs seem to be almost non-existent. There appear to be planning for an excessively costly upgrade. Still, the previous design by Mr Gustavs worked well for many years. Considering the financial state of Centrs, perhaps repairs rather than upgrades are more appropriate.
The questions are: Which Board or staff member is responsible to bring Umurkumurs up to a usable space while controlling costs? How does the Board think that Umurkumurs will be used?
A: The letter raises the question of whether Umurkumur’s role is to raise funds for The Centre, or as a place to chat and meet. The Board believes that the two things can be combined, as has been the case for many years. The flood has changed many plans regarding the Umurkumurs renovation. As it sits, due to the extensive damage caused by the flood, there is no possibility to simply repair the Umurkumurs. Due to further damage as a result of the flood and ongoing negotiations with our insurance company as to what is and what is not covered by our policy, there have admittedly been delays that have only been exacerbated by COVID-19. While you may feel that it is mismanagement on the part of the Board, all delays pertaining to the renovation are insurance related and largely outside of the control of the Board.
Q: The general feeling among many members of Centrs is that closing Birches is a serious mistake. Until recently, there were functions that occurred on a regular, often weekly basis, such as TLPA pensioner meetings, ballroom dancing, choir practices, dancing, frat events and committee meetings. Some of these events can reluctantly do without food, but TLPA pensionary in particular cannot. There is additional fallout for the food market on Thursdays and Saturdays. It appeared that the market event was profitable, (at least while run by volunteers who have now quit), and also popular since there were many individuals, especially from the outside community, who came just to purchase food from the Birches. Can a caterer be found to provide food for the market and other events and at what cost?
And what about ad hoc functions such as the popular Speakers Series, society functions, Azaids, summer BBQ, Jāņi, weddings, funerals and Martiņ tirgus that require catering? Many of these functions are rental and catering money generators. Without catering, the Centre will suffer not only financially but also lose out as a meeting place for members, friends and clients. Events such as Ballroom dancing may well be cancelled.
The questions are: Does the Board have a plan how to handle these events? Who will staff the bar and oversee any food inventory? If one will have to use outside caterers, will the Board have suggestions? Will the kitchen be available with all utensils? Will the Board provide staff to monitor events?
A: As previously outlined above, while the Board understands the concerns brought forwards, financially speaking, it is simply impossible to continue providing catering with paid staff. While you address that these events generate rental income, all income generated from the rental aspect was being offset by a more significant loss from the catering aspect of these events.
The TLPA pensioners, ballroom dancing, choirs, speaker series, folk dancers, weddings, funerals, etc. will all have access to Centre facilities including the kitchen. As is the case with many other organizations, such as the Estonians, Hamilton Latvian Centre and so on, groups can use our kitchen facilities to prepare food. Where a caterer is needed, the Centre will have a list of preferred partners, or, an outside caterer can be used. All costs will be fully passed-on to our clients. The Board and the General Manager are looking at all options for the preferred catering partners to ensure that we are able to provide the same high-quality service and competitive pricing that our members and patrons have grown accustomed to. The Centre will no longer subsidize meals but will help our clients reduce costs wherever possible. It is important to note that the Board is looking to make the transition from in-house catering as smooth and as easy as possible.
Q: The Centre seems to have lost its focus and cultural vision. Is the Centre a cultural centre or a business? Members of the Centre would like to receive more detail on how Centrs will continue their operations in these difficult times. Running Centrs even in the best of times is a daunting task. The Board now has the extremely difficult task of bringing the Centre back to life without eliminating its core vision of a viable “dzīva vide, dzīvai tautai” We are writing to the Board because we know there are many people who are concerned about the future of Centrs.
The questions are: What is the current vision of the Centre? How many people will donate or bequeath their money to Centrs, if they think all is lost? Who will water the flowers when we are all gone?
In summary, we realize these are extraordinary times and the challenges will require extraordinary effort. At the same time keep safe until we meet again at the Centre.
A: The vision of the board has undoubtedly not changed from what was ingrained in our thoughts 40 years ago – a living environment for a living nation. It includes all generations from the oldest to the youngest and all Latvians, both “superletts” and those who have not been in Latvian society for many years, and their only link is to subscribe to Kas Notiek and view The Centre’s Facebook page.
The Centre’s latest project, Assistance Packages for Retirees, shows that we are able to adapt to changing circumstances and use disadvantage to help our older generation. In the following days, on Mother’s Day, the sachets will be distributed again. We must thank the Honorary Consul of Latvia Kārlis Vasaras for sowing the seeds of the idea!
As a final point, the future development committee has been hard at work creating a proposal for the long-term future of The Centre that focuses largely on the goal of sustainable space Latvian Culture to thrive. From the survey results that were compiled over the previous year, it is clear that The Centre must remain where it is. The Future Development Committee and the Board are working together, taking the input that was provided by our membership, to present a vision for the future of The Centre at the 2019-2020 AGM in September.