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Freeze on grants sparks anxiety among Whistler non-profits

Redirecting gaming money would have large impact on arts, sports and social services

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The provincial government's Direct Access grant freeze is hitting home, leaving many Whistler community groups anxious about their financial future.

Among those waiting in limbo for an update from the Ministry of Housing and Social Development is Jehanne Burns from Whistler Museum and Archives, who has already written to MLA Joan McIntyre with her concerns.

"This funds literally all of the museum's programs," said an impassioned Burns after finding out last week the grant program was on hold. "It puts everything in jeopardy."

If the museum doesn't receive the grant she said, even buying ink for their printer and paying staff wages will be a challenge.

To add to Burns's woes, the museum was planning to have a special Olympic program ready for February when the world arrives on Whistler's doorstep for the Winter Games. But without the Direct Access grant, the museum's Olympic plans could also be on the chopping block.

Last year, the museum received $40,000 from the Direct Access program.

The program provides up to $100,000 in funds to local non-profit organizations, or up to $250,000 to province-wide non-profits, annually. The funds come from the province's gambling and lottery revenue.

According to the ministry's website, total gaming revenues for fiscal 2008-09 were approximately $2.61 billion. After expenses, government revenues were about $1.09 billion. Slightly more than $156 million was allocated to non-profit organizations. But the freeze and review of gaming grants has left organizations across the province wondering what's going to happen to their budgets.

"I don't know what it will mean for the museum, and that is what is so scary," said Burns. "We really don't ever have any money for anything extra or new. We are just trying desperately to maintain, which is a struggle, let alone progress.

"We obviously get a grant from the Resort Municipality of Whistler to help fund our operations, but it is not enough to fund our whole staff and all our expenditures. Running a museum is really expensive just for the back of house work, let alone anything that the public sees."

Burns isn't the only one feeling the pinch from the temporarily suspended grant program.

About a dozen Whistler community groups focused on arts, sports, education or social services have received grants from the provincial program over the past few years. More than $300,000 was doled out in Whistler during the provincial government's last fiscal year.

Local groups impacted include the Whistler Arts Council (WAC), Whistler Mountain Ski Club, Whistler Search and Rescue (SAR), Whistler Gymnastics Club, Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS), and Whistler Children's Centre Society.

Parent advisory councils (PACs) serving Myrtle Philip Elementary School, Spring Creek Elementary School, Whistler Secondary School, Ecole la Passerelle, and Sea to Sky School District could also feel the blow.

Doti Niedermayer, director of WAC, is "deeply concerned."

"The funding from Direct Access gives us base funding for many of our programs," said Niedermayer. "It doesn't fund the entire program, but it gives us the funding that allows us to leverage with other funding and with sponsors."

Like Burns, Niedermayer was hoping to receive the funds this month. Some of WAC's programs that benefit from Direct Access include the Whistler Children's Art Festival, Art Walk, and the summer Performance Series. Last year, WAC received $36,000.

"There is so little funding for the arts to start with," she said. "It would be a great shame to see the government move the scarce funding from cultural programs to balance their budget."

Niedermayer added, however, that she hasn't received word directly from the government yet about any changes to the grant program, and all her information on the subject comes from media articles.

And over at the Whistler Mountain Ski Club, Nigel Loring said without the grants his group might have to cut back on how much money they put towards their athletes' training. The club received $44,500 last year.
"We are in a wait and see pattern, even though we are waiting with bated breath," said Loring.

"It is a sizable chunk of change, and my challenge, and the challenge of the club, is to find replacement funding, which is tough to do in these days, or reorganize our plans for the winter."

Currently, the provincial government is keeping tight lipped on the future of the Direct Access gaming grants.

In a brief, e-mailed statement to Pique Newsmagazine , however, a representative from the ministry said the government is taking a comprehensive review of discretionary grants in light of the tough economic times, and a decision will be made in the near future.

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