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'Timing is now critical': Plans for Barrie's future performing arts centre begin to take shape

'If we start working now, in five years time we will have the (theatre) space,' says task force member Julie Underhill
2022-01-24 Performing arts task force
Chuck Ruttan and Julie Underhill (bottom middle), members of the performing arts task force, present to general committee on Monday night.

The curtain is rising on a new performing arts centre (PAC) in Barrie.

City councillors gave initial approval Monday night to a motion that the PAC task force’s recommendations  a facility with main and secondary theatres and multi-purpose space on the former Fisher auditorium site  be received, and that council support the continued development of a PAC in downtown Barrie.

“There is no question there is demand for this facility,” said Mayor Jeff Lehman. “It’s time for us to get building.”

“We all talk about a great city,” said Coun. Robert Thomson, who sat on the task force. “We’ve approved $200 million for rec centres. This is the rec centre for the arts community.”

“We really need one of these buildings because we are in the process of building a great city,” said Coun. Clare Riepma, who also sat on the task force. “There are a lot of soccer and pickleball players who do go to the theatre.”

City staff would also hire a professional firm with expertise in municipal theatre development, design and management to review the task force recommendations and report back to councillors by memo detailing the firm’s recommendations  including project timelines, resources being requested and the design scope of the project.

Once councillors have the memo, an architectural firm would be hired to complete a concept plan and a cost estimate for a performing arts centre, with funding from the 2022 and 2023 capital budgets. There would also be an implementation plan that includes timelines for construction, recommendations for a fundraising program, an operating plan and the cost of its annual operating budget.

“If we start working now, in five years time we will have the (theatre) space,” said Julie Underhill, another task force member.

“I think the timing is now critical. Too many things have been lost,” said Chuck Ruttan, another task force member. “We really need facilities where you can perform to your full ability.”

When it came time to vote on the motion Monday, approval was unanimous  although Coun. Keenan Aylwin, who represents the downtown area, did not attend the meeting.

But Coun. Mike McCann asked why there was no dollar figure attached to the facility and why only one location was being considered. 

McCann said he has concerns about parking at the Dunlop Street West location, and that three was another suitable location in an existing building, although he did not identify the location of the privately owned property. 

Thomson was the first to answer the location question.

“We’ve had the theatre there for generations,” he said of the former Fisher site. “We couldn’t start the task force hoping someone will sell this property.”

Coun. Jim Harris, the task force's chairman, said another site is not part of its recommendations.

“We do have a site that does work, that does fit,” he said. “We seem to have consensus.”

Coun. Gary Harvey asked if the new performing arts centre must have a secondary theatre, and was told that’s something the consultant will determine. There’s $200,000 in this year’s city budget for that work.

This motion will be considered for final approval at city council’s Jan. 31 meeting.

The PAC is meant to replace both Georgian Theatre, which has 680 seats, and the demolished Fisher auditorium, which had 980 seats at the former Barrie Central Collegiate site.

Monday night’s presentation, made by Underhill and Ruttan, contains details of a main theatre with 800 to 900 seats, 60 to 70 per cent of them on the orchestra level, and 600 seats when the balcony is closed. Its stage would be 50 feet by 100 feet, including the wings. The secondary theatre would have 350 seats and there would also be multi-purpose space in the facility, about 5,000 square feet for rehearsals and performances.

There was also information about a 66,500-sq.-ft. facility costing $53.1 million, but Harris has said those numbers are more of a starting point than anything else. The consultant will determine the PAC’s cost.

Its funding model is 30/30/30/10  equal shares from the federal, provincial, municipal levels of government, and the remainder from fundraising. The city would apply for capital infrastructure grants from the provincial and federal governments. Last year, council agreed to start a theatre reserve and $2.5 million went in this year.

The task force looked at demand from user groups for a PAC. A sampling of 18 groups generated 158 requests for the main stage, 146 for the smaller stage and 155 for multi-purpose space in a single year. This translates into 195 days of bookings, with 129 days of two or more requests. The potential audience is estimated at more than 45,000.

Additional community use and rental could include community cultural celebrations such as Barrie Native Friendship Centre Drum Circles and the Pow Wow, numerous festivals such as Barrie Jazz, Rhythm Fest, Culture Days and civic celebrations.

The PAC could also host events that require all three spaces, such as the Ontario Vocal Festival, Choral Fest, dance competitions and music recitals.

The task force also looked at economic impact. Its survey concluded Barrie residents going elsewhere for more than 40 per cent of their performance events  first to the Greater Toronto Area, next to Orillia. Why they go relates to the quality of arts and culture facilities.

They spend $65-plus per ticket, on average, and $62-plus for food, retail purchases and other expenditures. The task force says $5 million is leaving Barrie annually.

The task force undertook a PAC survey and had more than 1,000 responses, which showed overwhelming support for a new facility. Barrie has about 100 arts groups now, and its population is expected to double in size in the next 30 years.