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Fisher auditorium nearing its final act as council approves demolition

'I’m not happy about having to tear it down... (but) we owe it to future generations to build a performing arts centre that meets their needs,' says deputy-mayor

Close the curtain on the Fisher theatre.

Barrie councillors decided Monday night to demolish the Dunlop Street West facility and put plans for a new theatre and conference centre on hold for 12 months, or when there’s COVID-19 recovery, which allows market conditions to improve to the point that its business case can be updated and assessed.

“I’m not happy about having to tear it down,” said Deputy Mayor Barry Ward. “I know the Fisher auditorium (on the former Barrie Central Collegiate site) has special meaning for many generations of Barrie residents. We owe it to future generations to build a performing arts centre that meets their needs

“To do that, unfortunately, means a fresh start," he added. 

City staff say a state-of-the-art, 650-seat theatre and conference centre cannot be delivered given the project’s estimated capital and operational costs. Based on the current design, retaining the existing foundation of the W.A. Fisher Auditorium, market assessment, benchmarking analysis and overall business case review, the estimated costing to deliver two options for the project is high.

The theatre only would cost approximately $30 million to build, with annual operating costs estimated at $750,000. A theatre and conference centre comes with capital costs of $53 million, and $1.05 million in annual operating costs.

Also, the pandemic has forced most live indoor entertainment venues and conference facilities to close. Some have been able to reopen with limited capacity, but the timing for when these types of venues can fully reopen remains unknown. The second surge of COVID-19, makes clear that for the near future live performance and conferences will continue to be deeply impacted.

Putting this project on hold means annual operating cost of $30,000 to maintain the site for fire service access and securing the building. 

Council has also directed staff to look at separate sites for a new theatre and conference centre.

“Obviously, the numbers speak for themselves… We’re in a COVID world,” said Coun. Sergio Morales. “The theatre and the people business, we don’t know what it is and where it’s going to go. Unless we’ve got an investor knocking, right on the door…short of that, it’s not viable now.”

Coun. Keenan Aylwin, who represents the downtown, attended Barrie Central Collegiate, was in the concert band, in drama, so he spent time in the Fisher in high school.

“It’s about the people, not the building,” he said. “To just keep the building is a waste of money. I know we can honour the history of the Fisher auditorium.”

“It is a very tough decision, a very sensitive one,” Coun. Robert Thomson said.

“You can’t make these decisions, unfortunately, based on nostalgia and emotion,” said Mayor Jeff Lehman. “The reality is both the world has changed, with COVID, and significantly, the project is much more expensive and at a certain point you have to say is there enough value in the retention of the building to outweigh the cost of starting afresh.

“Much as I don’t like it, much as it’s painful, it’s the right decision.”

And it’s been in the works for a while.

In June, council directed staff to create a report with information on a potential exit strategy from the Fisher project.

Staff say this exit could include declaring the land surplus to the city’s needs and selling it, although that is not part of Monday night’s motion to demolish the building. A complete appraisal of the property taking into account improvements from the Kidd’s Creek construction, development limitations of the site related to Kidd’s Creek, and the impacts of an existing building on the site would all influence the land’s value.

The site is zoned commercial, which allows for a variety of uses should council decide to sell the property.

Alternate use of this property could include the private development of a hotel and/or conference centre, a health services centre, post-secondary or a private educational campus, condominium/mixed-use development, affordable housing, an office tower, or retail development.

The Fisher auditorium sale was part of negotiations with HIP developments, which included Red Storey Field as well as 34, 36, 38, 40 and 44 Bradford St.

Last spring, council rezoned 34-50 Bradford St., and a portion of 125 Dunlop St. W., to permit HIP’s development of 600 residential units in multiple buildings, and a new YMCA community facility, on the former high school property. Its final site plan still needs council’s approval for this property located on the west side of Bradford Street, immediately southwest of Simcoe Street, and containing the former Red Storey Field. 

This nearly seven-acre site would contain two 20-storey towers, one 10-storey residential building, a three-storey YMCA, a semi-public urban parkette containing the heritage facade of the former Prince of Wales school and a five-storey parking structure. This structure and surface parking is proposed to serve the entire development, providing a total of 822 parking spaces — 600 for the residential units and one space per four people using the YMCA.

Bob Bruton

About the Author: Bob Bruton

Bob Bruton is a full-time BarrieToday reporter who covers politics and city hall.
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