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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Growing pains' behind tax woes

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IT was built to be a point of pride and a cultural gathering place for the growing Filipino community, the first of its kind in Canada.

Today, for the second time since it opened eight years ago, the Philippine-Canadian Centre of Manitoba owes the city big bucks for tax arrears.

"It's been in rough (financial) shape since its creation in 2004," said Lito Taruc, who was elected president of the centre last year, inheriting the centre's $98,000 tax bill and financial problems.

Originally, it was supposed to be a cultural centre on land leased from the city for $1 a year with a city library attached and a seniors housing complex to generate revenue, he said.

City councillors kiboshed that plan, leaving the community with a much smaller site and no source of income.

The cultural centre was supposed to be big enough to host major events such as Folklorama, said Fred DeVilla, who recalls the community meetings held to discuss the proposed centre.

Ideally, there would have been room for a basketball court, said the community leader who's served on the PCCM board in the past.

In the end, it's not large enough for either, said DeVilla.

Today, the place is fully rented with commercial tenants, doesn't receive government funding and barely breaks even, said Taruc.

No one knows for sure how it ran up the debt because financial records and statements weren't properly kept, and they are still waiting for a 2009 external auditor's report, Taruc said.

Until they see the books and clear up what happened, it won't be easy passing the hat to cover the latest arrears, he said.

"It's hard to approach the community asking for money again," he said.

In 2007, the city reported the centre owed $209,000 in unpaid property taxes and uncollected commercial rent. It's required to pay about $57,000 in annual city property taxes on its $1-a-year city lease, but it's exempt from provincial education taxes.

It hadn't paid the city any property tax since it opened in 2004, said the report the city prepared. The centre was supposed to pay the city a percentage of the net income on commercial rent it collected from seven tenants, including a travel agency and dental centre. The city agreed to write off late-payment fees and pressed for the reimbursement of only $188,000. The community rallied and raised the money to pay the tax bill.

And they will again, said Winnipeg Coun. Mike Pagtakhan, who was elected to the centre's board last year. He says the centre is still in its "infancy" and the tax arrears are a symptom of "growing pains" that are about to end.

"The centre hasn't reached its heyday yet," he said. "I see opportunity with so many Filipinos coming every year."

He said close to 60,000 Winnipeggers claim some Filipino heritage and nearly 2,000 more arrive in the city every year from the Philippines.

"I want to harness the energy of the Filipinos coming here -- the working professionals with kids who are really gung-ho. They want to get involved in the centre and celebrate the arts, dance, computers and comics," he said.

"When you get more people involved, it will be more successful financially and sustainable. Tax arrears will never be an issue again," said Pagtakhan.

But DeVilla believes unless it can expand with a gym and serve more of the community, it will continue to muddle along.

"To me, as long as our community is supporting the Philippine centre, a future is there," said DeVilla.

Its crowning glory is the dome incorporated into the building's design -- a salakot, traditional headgear worn in the Philippines.

"It's such a beautiful building," said Winnie Navarro, who moved to Los Angeles from the Philippines before she and her husband put down roots in Winnipeg more than a decade ago.

"We're one of the lucky ones to have a place like this to do things," said Navarro.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 3, 2012 J5

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