In February 1930 the Strand Theatre on 10th Street in Brandon was fully reopened after a two-month renovation to convert it into Brandon’s first “talking picture” house. This article, from a 1916 edition of the Sun, is a very colourful piece that details the actual opening of the Strand. (SUBMITTED)
The Swift Current Lyric Theatre in its present usable state. Future plans are to upgrade the entranceway. (SUBMITTED)
The current exterior of the Strand. The roof of the closed theatre has been repaired and some interior cleaning is set to start soon.
So the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society defied critics and met its deadline to submit a revised funding proposal to the federal government for its Strand Theatre project.
Sure, the $1.2-million funding application was mailed on the afternoon of the deadline of Jan. 31 imposed by potential funders Renaissance Brandon, but it’s in the mail nonetheless.
Now it’s up to the federal funding gods to decide if Brandon gets to do what so many other cities across Canada have done in recent years — redevelop an old movie house into a modern performance venue.
But even before that, the BFMAS should have announced its private fundraising campaign, that will feature a host of prominent local residents — a few names that I heard knocked my socks off — that will hopefully silence critics and let the group get on with its project.
When I first moved back here in 2004, there was talk of private citizens trying to figure out if there was a way to save the Strand Theatre, which was closed when the new multiplex opened on 18th Street South.
In fact, in our files here is a story and photo by former Sun reporter Curtis Brown speaking with Dr. Derry Decter shortly after the theatre had shown its last film in January 2005 — the comic book-turned-movie "Elektra," starring Jennifer Garner — who said he wanted to salvage the dilapidated theatre as a co-op for local painters and performance groups to use as a studio and stage.
But a few months later, Decter’s optimism was fading and he told the Sun he had more or less abandoned his attempt to buy the former Strand Theatre from Landmark Cinemas.
By the fall of 2008, the Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society — of which Decter is a longtime supporter and former board member — decided to take the project on and was handed a huge present by the outgoing members of the first incarnation of Renaissance Brandon.
With former mayor Dave Burgess absent — he wanted to raze the Strand and most of the west side of 10th Street — Ren Brandon agreed to commit nearly half a million dollars to the restoration of the Strand Theatre on 10th Street, provided the provincial and federal governments put up their share of the cash to make the project happen.
"This was an opportunity for Renaissance Brandon to step forward, get that ball rolling and prove a point that this is a worthy project," said outgoing vice-chair Marlow Kirton.
It was known by then that the BFMAS hoped to convert the Strand from a run-down old movie theatre into a multi-use performance and arts centre, at an estimated cost of roughly $3 million. It would feature a medium sized theatre space with a capacity of 250 to 420 depending on seating and fill a hole in the venues the city can offer touring performers.
Former Ren Brandon chair Vince Barletta said at the time the $474,000 will "demonstrate that there is considerable support for this project, broadly speaking, in the community" and give senior levels of government more reason to support the project as well.
The move also meshed well with the message sent by the public to city council at a large public meeting the year previous that downtown must improve its image and reverse perceptions that it is "dead" and "unsafe."
A main issue that emerged is the need for more destination venues downtown — including an entertainment venue.
Several people also said Brandon should take a page from the playbook of Winnipeg’s Centre Venture development corporation and aim to make enough "visible improvements" to downtown buildings to achieve a "tipping point" in the public’s perception of the area.
However, Renaissance Brandon was never set up to be able to properly operate like Centre Venture. It’s stuck doing cultural programming a separate BIZ organization should do and it refuses to reorganize its board to boot off meddling politicians. But I digress.
While so many other theatres across Canada have been restored to their former glory — or the buildings facades kept if the insides were beyond salvaging — it took a long time for the folkies to get their act together and their original application into the feds.
There was also plenty of political interference along the way, such as when Burgess refused to priorize the project when the feds were handing infrastructure money out like candy a couple of years ago.
The application was returned from the feds one year ago, with a number of questions.
The feds now have the completed application and could take up to six months making a decision.
And now we wait.
If the BFMAS application is rejected, it could find some other pot of government money to go after, but it will likely lose the Ren Brandon dough. It would also be tough to raise private funds without knowing the project has federal funding.
The province has always been supportive of the project and have earmarked $1 million for it.
A BFMAS spokesperson said they did a new round of user consultations, which show at least 30 groups interested in using such a facility. This would complement a wide range of performances by artists who now play venues such as the West End Cultural Centre.
But I say if the feds say no, then unless some other group steps up — such as Ren Brandon itself, it could renovate the place then sell or lease it — the Strand is destined for the wrecking ball.
Landmark Cinemas has proven to be excellent corporate citizens by spending untold thousands of dollars to hold onto one of its excess properties as a favour to an arts group with a big dream. It also plans to sell the building to the BFMAS for $1 if the fed funding comes through.
But I’d say this is the year the Strand either gets saved — possibly to be the entertainment centre as part of a new adjoining hotel/gaming centre — or it faces the same fate that many of the city’s fine old buildings have.
They paved paradise and (maybe) put up a parking lot.
A tale of two MPs:
• David Anderson, Tory MP for Cypress Hills Grasslands, last summer handed over a $500,000 cheque to The Southwest Cultural Development Group for its efforts to restore the historical Swift Current Lyric Theatre in Saskatchewan.
In 2005 a group of Swift Current residents saw the potential of the historic building. The Lyric was reopened in March 2006. Since that time, the theatre has hosted young punk and hardcore bands, country-themed fundraiser events, dramatic productions, improv comedy performances, battle of the bands, children’s matinees and drama workshops.
The project — which includes an expensive restoration component — once fully completed, will likely have cost $5 million. Fundraising is ongoing.
"Our government received a strong mandate from Canadians to invest in organizations that support local artists, like the Southwest Cultural Development Group," James Moore, minister of Canadian Heritage said in a statement last summer.
"By supporting this organization, our government is delivering on its commitment to strengthen our economy and support our arts, culture and heritage."
• However, one MP apparently didn’t get that memo. Last fall, in a jaw-dropping move, Brandon-Souris Conservative MP Merv Tweed told the BFMAS to forget about sending in its amended application.
Tweed said the lengthy delays in applying and reapplying for grants left him where he could no longer support the project or spending federal funds on the Strand Theatre.
He partly blamed the lack of private fundraising for his decision. This before the group had even announced its plans on a fundraising drive.
"It is regrettable that we were blindsided by these statements, which were made outside the protocols governing the administration of the Cultural Spaces program, as we have always placed our trust in Mr. Tweed," BFMAS vice-president Shannon Skidmore said in a release. "Such statements unfortunately hurt our community’s confidence and ultimately have a corrupting effect on the fair process of funding community projects.
"This hurts our community as a whole."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition February 16, 2013