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Ferry service cuts threaten future of Powell River music event

Conductor Arthur Arnold takes his students though a rehearsal at the PRISMA, Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy in Powell River June 20, 2013.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Cuts at BC Ferries have hit a sour note with the organizers of an international music event in Powell River who are concerned about the future of one of its highlight elements – and possibly the event itself.

Each year, the Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy (PRISMA) brings advanced music students from around the world to the remote Sunshine Coast community to study with masters such as Arthur Arnold, chief conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and PRISMA's artistic director. The students perform several concerts over the two weeks, including a matinee midway through for an audience largely composed of people who have come over for the day from Vancouver Island on what's been dubbed the Symphony Cruise.

But when BC Ferries announced service cuts in a cost-saving measure, the return trip – leaving Powell River for Comox on Saturdays at 5:15 p.m. – was one of the axed routes. Organizers at PRISMA were stunned; they had already booked about 200 tickets and were hoping for as many as 500 this year.

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"It may be one of the more profitable sailings they have in the entire year. So if the rationale was cost savings, why would they cut the one sailing where they actually make money?" said Brian Balfe, PRISMA's board president.

"We knew we had to get it back," said PRISMA's vice-president, John Silver. "If we don't have … this symphony cruise, it's difficult to know whether we could actually continue.… If we took one of those concerts out and the revenue that comes with it, I think it would put us on the borderline to continue to exist as an organization, so important is that concert and that particular group of patrons."

On Friday, BC Ferries issued a reprieve – that one sailing, on June 21, would be reinstated, but just this year. "They were pretty clear about that – for this year only," Mr. Balfe said. "So we're okay for this year, which is good, but we're likely to have to do battle for next year."

This June marks the Symphony Cruise's eighth year. It's a big day: Classical music lovers from Vancouver Island, largely from Comox and Courtenay, board the morning ferry in Comox and are treated to a performance on-board by an ensemble of the Strathcona Symphony Orchestra. "It's just a perfect day," said SSO president Michele Morton. "You get on the BC Ferry and it's sort of like no longer the BC Ferry; it's transformed."

Passengers disembark, are greeted by local officials, bused to lunch at various Powell River spots, take in the matinee and return at 5:15. With that sailing cancelled, they would have had to wait around. "The alternative was to keep people there until 8:30 in the evening, but for mostly a grey-hair crowd that would mean about a 14-hour day to attend a two-hour concert, which is just too long," Mr. Balfe said.

The B.C. government confirmed the service reductions in early February; BC Ferries revealed the adjusted schedules in late March. The cuts are to result in $14-million in annual savings (another $4.9-million in savings are to come from not-yet-announced cuts to major routes), but have raised concerns from coastal residents and the tourism industry.

BC Ferries did consult stakeholders in determining which sailings to cut, but they focused on the overall schedule. "It was really an exercise in trying to make the most sense of a schedule on a yearly basis, so if there were specific events they just wouldn't have been on the radar," said BC Ferries public affairs manager Darin Guenette. "They might not have thought that far ahead – oh wait a minute, if you do this to Saturday evening, what about the one time a year when somebody counts on that sailing?"

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Mr. Guenette says restoring one sailing on the route is a tricky exercise, but he says BC Ferries will work with PRISMA to find a solution for future years. One suggestion – that the event be moved to the Sunday – may not fly, as a number of Powell River restaurants are closed on Sunday, and it's the only day off the students get. PRISMA may have to charter a ferry for the event – the cost of which remains undetermined. Mr. Guenette says these are only two preliminary ideas. "The important part is: Let's get together and talk about it."

Mr. Arnold, speaking from the Netherlands where he lives part of the year, says the festival has even discussed expanding its ferry use, but needs stability. "It would be nice if BC Ferries would commit to not cancelling this ferry for the next five years or whatever," he said. "I think they benefit from it as well and, if they're smart, they will keep it on."

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