When Brandon Folk, Music and Art Society artistic director Shandra MacNeill first put forward a proposal nearly three years ago to renovate downtown’s aging Strand Theatre into a modern, multi-use performance and arts centre, we backed the proposal with cautious optimism.
So many ideas to renovate and energize Brandon’s downtown have come and gone, most of which have never made the leap from dream to reality.
This was different — we hoped. The plan to reclaim the old downtown landmark would have created a unique and much-needed addition to Brandon cultural scene. This was a project we wanted to see succeed.
But for that to happen, the $4-million project had several hurdles to clear, not the least of which has been financial backing. The funding for this project was based on a three-tiered approach, requiring money from the federal and provincial governments as well as from local sources, like Renaissance Brandon.
The organization had made an application to the federal government for $1.8 million, and as MacNeill once told us several months ago, the BFMAS was counting on that federal support as the main pillar to hold up the project.
Last month, that pillar crumbled to dust after MacNeill received a short and very blunt letter from Brigitte Gibson, operations director for the Department of Canadian Heritage, Prairies and Northern Region.
As first reported yesterday by the Sun, Gibson’s letter stated the Strand Project was deemed eligible for funding and was “assessed to have many merits.” But the department questioned the project’s financial viability.
“The fundraising and business plans provided were optimistic and did not demonstrate that your organization has the capacity to successfully manage the capital project or the new facility with significantly increased fixed costs.”
While the letter also notes the group has been invited to reapply for funding, that application will have to “clearly” articulate realistic goals and timelines, and include a comprehensive business/operating plan that “clearly” details the staffing, programming and other needs associated with increased activities in the new facility. It also called for “more moderate and substantiated operating projections in the event that fundraising and/or usage goals are not met.”
In short, it was a stunning rebuke, not just to the project, but to the leadership of the BFMAS.
Earlier this week, Brandon-Souris Conservative MP Merv Tweed said the comments from the department suggest the society needs to do a lot more work to answer those concerns, “or we move on.” That’s putting it mildly.
The plan to renovate the Strand Theatre into a performance and arts centre was an idea that was steeped in optimism and idealism, and that’s a good way to get an idea launched. Unfortunately, it appears to have lacked the ballast of realism to give it some direction.
To date, the BFMAS has not attempted to raise funds for the project within the community — organizers have apparently been waiting for the green light from the federal and provincial governments. We have previously questioned the reasoning for such a delay, as it was vital to show the project has broad community support. We believe that proof would have been beneficial in this case.
After all the hassle the city went through with the partial collapse of the Brown Block, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars poured into the Strand’s renovations by Renaissance Brandon and property owners as a result of that collapse, this is a very poor investment return.
And based on the contents of the Heritage Canada letter, for MacNeill to suggest that a simple reworking of some of the information “into a form that they prefer” will suffice smacks of wishful thinking.
While there may still be a ghost of a chance for the project to be salvaged, we suggest the society members conduct a hard-headed assessment of their business plan first before they attempt to resubmit their federal bid.
And if it’s not viable, do like the man says, and “move on.”
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 27, 2012