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Uncertainty surrounds Fisher Auditorium project amid COVID, ballooning cost estimates

'The minimum financial investment for the combined theatre/conference centre is currently estimated at $50 million and not the $25.6 million previously suggested,' says city staffer
Fisher concept
Conceptual drawing for Fisher Auditorium. Image supplied

Update: At Monday night's general committee meeting, councillors approved referring the memo back to city staff for a report once the tourism master plan is received later this year. It would include an alternative, or "exit strategy," for possibly listing the auditorium land as surplus and potentially putting it up for sale.

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Construction estimates on the proposed Fisher Auditorium work are coming in at almost double what was expected and the current COVID crisis could also delay any future work on the former high-school building.  

In a memo to city council, director of economic and creative development Stephannie Schlichter says the theatre and event centre's operational needs and design elements have been confirmed.

"Based on reworked layouts, building design and site needs, the minimum financial investment for the combined theatre/conference centre is currently estimated at $50 million and not the $25.6 million previously suggested," Schlichter said in her report, which is included in tonight's council package. "Given the magnitude of this change, options for cost efficiencies are being identified as part of the review process."

Deputy Mayor Barry Ward says he's eager to hear more information about why the project estimates have gone up so drastically. 

"Is it for the theatre? The conference portion? Having said that, it is a lot of extra money so it will require council to review the project," Ward told BarrieToday. "As Ms. Schlichter suggests, the city may be able to mitigate some of the costs through design changes. A lot will also depend on how much funding we can get from other levels of government and how much can be brought in through a community fundraising drive.

"I don’t think there will be a lot of appetite for taking capital funding from other areas to pay for a conference centre, beyond what we’ve already committed," the deputy-mayor added. 

The former Barrie Central Collegiate auditorium was saved from the wrecking ball after the city completed a land swap with the company developing the nearby property. 

There was $26 million is budgeted in the city's capital plan for the auditorium redevelopment, including $3 million in 2021, and $11.5 million in each of 2022 and 2023. Through the 2021 capital budgeting process, recommendations for timing and the allocation/reallocation of the money will be presented to council for consideration.

Staff has recommended that Fisher Auditorium redevelopment plans be put on hold until it becomes more clear how the economic recovery from COVID-19 unfolds, Schlichter said. 

"The concept of a 650-seat theater, event/conference centre and associated hotel and community development initiatives may not be realistic for some time," she said. "It is also important to have commitment from a strong community partner in order to fully leverage the site and potential to serve as a catalyst for west-end redevelopment."

Ward says the project, like everything else in the world, is feeling the effects of the coronavirus. 

"COVID-19 has changed the world in ways we couldn’t have imagined just a few months ago," he said. "I think it makes sense to take a serious look at a proposal — the Fisher Auditorium and events centre — which depends on people continuing to gather for concerts and conferences. That’s hard to imagine right now, but I believe things will change and life will get back to some kind of normal, when such facilities are again being used."

So where does the project go from here?

"Council will have to take another look at the entire project, but I still think it’s necessary," Ward said. "Our tourism master plan won’t be unveiled until later this year, but I know the lack of a conference centre has been identified as a major gap in what Barrie has to offer in terms of generating tourism dollars, which boost our local economy.

"We are missing out on a lot of business and letting other communities have it," he added. "As well, we need an alternative to the Georgian Theatre as a performing arts space. A city of 150,000 needs a performing arts centre, never mind a city of 210,000 or whatever we have in 20 years."

The tourism master plan is expected to be brought to council in the fall. An updated theatre business and operating model report and preliminary fundraising capacity study are on hold pending as assessment of post-COVID opportunities for the hospitality industry.

The city has also been trying to find a partner for the Dunlop Street West project. Staff have been working closely with a "prominent organization" to solidify the location as a community hub and gateway to the downtown.

"A viable partnership model was close to being conceptualized for presentation to council when the COVID-19 pandemic hit," Schlichter said. 

The city's tourism master plan previously identified the need for a conference and event centre in Barrie to "capture greater business tourism opportunities and revenues." The review also noted that a hotel development be considered in conjunction with the Fisher Auditorium project, either connected or adjacent to the site. 

There has recently been "significant" interest in hotel development downtown, but no applications have yet been submitted to the city, said Schlichter.

The current pandemic has also thrown a wrench into things, resulting in "extremely atypical circumstances for theatres."

"The success of a theatre and conference centre are hinged on the ability to draw large crowds and with the uncertainty of the longer-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on such gatherings it is not reasonable to anticipate the feasibility of a new theatre and conference centre at this time," Schlichter said in her update.

"The organization with whom staff were working with has indicated the need to pause all discussions," she added. "This organization is reassessing their needs and focus in a post-COVID world. Details of the partnership concept, including who the organization is, must be kept confidential."

Meanwhile, the city's Creative Economy department had previously been asked by council to review the theatre/auditorium project and identify any changes to design and orientation.

"Changes to the original assumptions, namely (a) full understanding of the remaining portions of Barrie Central building and the freeing up of land reserved for the YMCA, allowed for a review of theatre/event centre designs to optimize operations," Schlichter said. "During preliminary reconfiguration of space/logistics, several operational opportunities were identified, including the potential of removing the fly gallery and adding meeting rooms, as well as on-site parking."

A fly gallery is an elevated platform at the side of the stage where a stagehand uses ropes to control equipment.

"The final theatre/event centre footprint needed to be confirmed for an integrated site plan to be advanced," said Schlichter, adding the capital campaign would not proceed until the building design is confirmed and the business plan approved.

Following the restructuring of departments at city hall in November 2019, the Fisher Auditorium project details were reviewed, including theatre design and operational needs.

"The review identified the need for further investigation and validation of facets for the proposed theatre and event centre prior to completing a comprehensive business case," Schlichter said. "Specifically, some of the earlier work completed was preliminary in terms of design, functionality and cost implications."

As for city finances, the virus has had serious effects on the municipality's bottom line. 

"The pandemic has dealt a serious blow to government finances at all levels, including the municipal level, both from the revenue and expenditure sides," Ward said. "Putting some projects on pause isn’t the worst thing in the word right now, although it is very disappointing."

In a recent report to council, Jennifer Cowles, the city's senior manager of corporate finance and investment, said the municipality could be looking at a year-end deficit. 

"The duration of the disruption to the economy, and the length of time required for a full recovery, remains unknown at this time," Cowles said. "The financial impacts are difficult to forecast and, like most municipalities, the city has limited funding capacity to address these unprecedented events. Support from senior levels of government is required."

Because municipalities can't budget for an operating deficit, any deficit needs to be funded first from reserves or recovered from the subsequent year's budget.




Raymond Bowe

About the Author: Raymond Bowe

Raymond is an award-winning journalist who has been reporting from Simcoe County since 2000
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