Barrie’s Georgian Theatre might just have a white knight after all.
City council decided Monday night to apply to the federal Canada Healthy Communities Initiative for an improvement grant to transform Georgian Theatre to create a safer and more vibrant space with improved mobility options and/or for digital solutions.
If the grant application is successful, city staff would report back to councillors regarding the operating cost implications and before the execution of any agreements.
“Some of you may be asking ‘didn’t we just agree to pull out of our lease for the theatre?’, and we did, as part of our budget,” said Coun. Clare Riepma. “But it has proven difficult, if not impossible, to find suitable venues for some of the users that have used the theatre in past.
"If we can get these funds from the federal government to fix up the theatre, it may continue to serve us reasonably well and economically until we build the Fisher," he added.
Last year, council abandoned its plans to refurbish the W. A. Fisher Auditorium at the former Barrie Central Collegiate site on Dunlop Street West, and demolish the facility. During budget talks in January, council then cancelled its lease agreement for Georgian Theatre, leaving some performing arts groups in the lurch.
“They (the feds) have a pot of $31 million… and this is a fund that targets specifically new ways to adapt spaces and services to respond to immediate and ongoing needs,” Riepma said, “and to create safe and vibrant public spaces indoor and outdoor to encourage cultural activities.”
Mayor Jeff Lehman noted the irony.
“Technically, it’s contrary to a previous decision we made, which is not to spend any more money on the Georgian Theatre,” he said.
The deadline to apply for this funding is March 9 and the work would need to be done this year.
Lehman said he expects a quick decision from Ottawa on the grant application.
“I think we’ve heard loud and clear from the arts and cultural communities that we need better interim solutions than perhaps some of the ideas that were floated when we decided to exit the lease,” he said.
Lehman credited Angela Baldwin, who he described as a pillar of Barrie’s arts community, with finding the grant and bringing it to the city’s attention.
Construction costs to refurbish Georgian Theatre — which is owned by Georgian College, but had been operated by the city — are $1.3 million during the next three to four years.
Dawn McAlpine, the city’s general manager of community and corporate services, said this particular grant has a cap that generally runs from $100,000 to $250,000 for each allotment.
“Certainly, $250,000 isn’t sufficient to do all the work,” she said. “But it would likely be sufficient to address the most urgent needs.”
“Georgian Theatre is not condemned or unusable,” Lehman said. “That ($1.3 million) was the work identified by city staff to bring it up to a certain standard for continued use. The thought now is can we get a few more years out of the facility and buy us some time to design the kind of facility that would be the next generation of performing arts facility in our community.”
Council has established a theatre reserve in 2022 to be used for future theatre capital requirements, with an annual contribution of $2.5 million to be funded from the reinvestment reserve. This reserve is capped at $15 million.
Lehman was asked if Georgian College would be paying any capital costs for its own theatre.
“I don’t think you should expect the college to contribute capital, though we can go back and ask,” he said. “So should we get a grant, should council decide we want to accept that funding and proceed with reopening the theatre for a short period of time, probably 2022 to say 2024 or 2025, get three or four more years out of it, then I think there would be a conversation with Georgian (College) around that.”
Canceling the city’s arrangement for the use of the Georgian Theatre saves the city $300,000 in expenditures, offset by lost revenue of $124,000, for a net reduction this year of $176,000. That amount is further offset by a one-time $50,000 addition to the Cultural Grants Program to provide COVID-19 relief for organizations with no revenues while audiences are restricted from gathering. Leaving the lease also eliminates future costs related to equipment and furniture upgrades.
A petition to restore the city’s lease agreement to operate Georgian Theatre has more than 2,400 signatures.