JWR Articles: Commentary - Niagara News (Source: Brian McMullan) - March 15, 2009

Niagara News

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A version of this article appeared in the March 12-18, 2009 edition of Pulse Niagara
Proposed arts centre closer to reality

“There’s a fantastic sense of a lot of support within the community. The comments and questions were excellent. This level of cooperation will be unparalleled in Canada,” said Mayor Brian McMullan following the conclusion of the first of two public information sessions. Clearly, the joint proposal by Brock University and the City of St. Catharines to revitalize the downtown core through a marvel of creative thinking, expanded teaching and inventive land/building use has come a long way since last November’s leadership gift of $15 million by Marilyn Walker.

During the formal part of the meeting, cultural planner Martin Vinik outlined the progress to date with as much passion and cautious optimism as the interested assemblage who came to learn where things stood. In his mind, the keys to success are Brock’s commitment to relocating and expanding the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts to the Hair Cloth Building site and the ongoing success of the Centre for the Arts, which, similarly, would abandon the acoustically challenged confines of the Sean O’ Sullivan and David S. Howes Theatres (better suited to their primary purpose as large lecture halls) for a number of specifically designed performance spaces—notably the 900-seat concert hall that will anchor the now-called Niagara Centre for the Arts (note to wealthy legacy seekers: a naming opportunity is most certainly available).

Warren Price (senior associate with Urban Strategies, the lead consulting company) discussed the site selection in more detail. “The Hair Cloth Building is a magnet into the city and part of its identity. By incorporating this extroverted building into the project, the resulting transformation of the image of downtown will complement what already exists. Fortunately, everything fit together and still left enough room to manoeuvre the elements.”

During the remainder of the presentation we learned that the total cost for the two sites (the arts centre will be built at the corner of Carlisle and St. Paul) will be just over $101,000,000. Because of the shared vision and interlocking purpose (teaching/research for Brock, performing/exhibiting for the arts centre), the price is a bargain and the level of risk far lower than most major capital projects. For its part, the university will contribute more than one third of the total. The remainder is expected to be the usual combination of local/regional, provincial and federal grants. With billions in Ottawa eagerly waiting to “get out the door,” surely St. Catharines will be a high priority even as GM teeters near the abyss of bankruptcy.

Rather than cocoon the patrons underneath the concert hall and its adjacent dance performance space (250 seats), film theatre (200 seats) and 300-seat recital hall, parking will be available at the two existing city lots. That is a retail-friendly choice, allowing concertgoers to window shop as they make their way to the glories of our burgeoning arts companies and first-class touring events. The impact of this bold adventure should not be underestimated: a vibrant hub of creativity will not only raise our spirits, it will also send property values upward and, accordingly, provide funds to the municipality that will repay the initial investment many times over.

Or, at least, that’s the theory.

Taken as a whole, Niagara has suddenly become the arts construction capital of Canada. Beyond this project, a 415-seat theatre is promised for Port Dalhousie, Project Niagara wishes to create “Tanglewood North” so as to assist the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre Orchestra with their summer programming, Niagara Falls has a spanking new venue at the casino where 1,500 folks can grab a bit of culture between hands of blackjack, and finally, another 1,000-seat hall is proposed for the Niagara Convention and Civic Centre.

Can we really afford all of these ventures? Are there ways of combining them? (Apparently, the proposed concert hall on St. Paul Street will be large enough to hold the TSO.)

The Q&A was a lively affair. Will there be a community program (i.e., not exclusively professionals)? “Yes, including informal exhibit space and a café where local entertainers could display their skills nightly.”

Are there statistics kept regarding how much revenue flows out of St. Catharines as its citizens look to Toronto, Hamilton and Buffalo for their high art? “No. But the converse (relying on out-of-towners to fill the seats) is not a major part of the revenue forecast.” If we build it, we will come.

Will the rental rates price our own arts community out of the building? “Yes and no. The plan calls to charge $3 per seat per performance; we’re negotiating with those affected—perhaps some sort of subsidy scheme will be adopted. Bottom line: we want you there.”

And so the game is afoot in earnest. Through common cause and creative partnerships, many formidable hurdles have already been overcome. Here’s to more of the same as the countdown to opening night continues. JWR

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Source - Brian McMullan
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