Theatre society revisits building studio space

NANAIMO – Council struggles to fulfill cultural mandate while keeping an eye on spending.

Another voice has been added to the increasingly dramatic conversation on how to provide public studio theatre space, where it should be and how much it should cost taxpayers.

The Port Theatre Society has resurrected its idea of building an addition on to the Port Theatre to allow for a smaller, more affordable performance and rehearsal stage area capable of accommodating 80 to 200 audience members.

The proposal comes at a time when city council is debating spending $800,000 over five years to renovate the exterior of the aging Nanaimo Centre Stage theatre at 25 Victoria Cres., a public venue the city purchased for $460,000 in 2008.

During a review of city assets performed earlier this year, an engineering firm recommended that extensive work be done to Nanaimo Centre Stage, including $450,000 to replace stucco, $100,000 to reroof sloped areas with a metal roof, and $10,000 to replace all of the building’s windows, among other work.

On Jan. 28, the city said it would address any immediate safety concerns, such as falling stucco and bricks, on the 116-year-old structure, but council has been hesitant to commit to a full renovation. It has, however, promised to discuss it during budget deliberations. Bruce Halliday, general manager of the Port Theatre, said that has opened the door to re-pitch the idea of adding a modern studio theatre expansion to the Port Theatre.

“Now is the time to build the long overdue studio theatre and it remains a priority for the Port Theatre to get this done,” said Halliday. “It’s been on our books since 1998 in one form or another. It’s a viable option, though every time we pitch it it gets revised a little bit.”

In 2009, plans to go ahead with the $9.8-million project were shelved after the society was denied $7.8 million in provincial and federal grants.

The city agreed to be the guarantor for a $2-million line of credit to make up the balance.

Project costs have not been updated, but Halliday said he is using $10 million as a ballpark number for a venue that will include three rehearsal stages and one performance stage. It is likely the society will need to approach council again to act as a guarantor.

The theatre addition has been considered a community need since 1986 when a feasibility study was done as part of the process to build the Port Theatre itself. The smaller studio theatre was mothballed so as to not compromise the integrity of the larger theatre.

Coun. Diana Johnstone, who is also chairwoman of the Parks, Recreation and Culture Committee, said council’s struggle is to provide a decent venue for local arts groups at a fair cost to the taxpayer.

“There are about 30 arts groups that use Nanaimo Centre Stage on a regular basis, so there is an obvious need in the community for a venue like this,” she said.

“Nanaimo Centre Stage was always supposed to be a short-term facility, it’s not purpose built, so we have to determine how much money we want to invest in it. But at the same time we’ve made culture a pillar of our Corporate Strategic Plan. For me, it’s important that these groups have a decent place to perform and I don’t want us to be hypocrites and say we’re going against our own strategic plan.”

When it applied for senior government grants in 2008, the Port Theatre Society said it narrowly missed out on being approved due to the new and difficult economic climate.

Halliday said he has been in constant touch with Canada Cultural Spaces Fund officials, part of the Economic Action Plan, and has received encouraging feedback that could result in a new facility.

“Talking to people who use Victoria Crescent, they certainly prove there is a need and a wish for alternative spaces,” said Halliday. “Most of those user groups are on my list of user groups. We’re sharing the same thing and our plan has always been to build a purpose-built professional space that is suitable for community and local uses.”

According to the proposal, the 15,000-square-foot Port Theatre addition would provide space for 200-plus performances in the downtown core, utilize Diana Krall Plaza as the entranceway, liaise with school district and university theatre departments, and generate an estimated $1.1 million annually in economic spinoff.

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