The Valley Community Theatre group based in Capreol made the difficult decision last month to fold after 25 years and more than 50 theatrical productions.
They might not have known it at the time, but their last-ever production ended up being “Dear Santa,” which they staged over the course of six days in December.
Although she said they’ve been struggling to attract volunteers, Valley Community Theatre president Patricia Rheault told Sudbury.com the main mitigating factor in their closure was the growing cost of renting theatre space at the city-owned Millennium Resource Centre.
Rheault recently sent an open letter to Mayor Paul Lefebvre highlighting this issue.
“We are disappointed that our theatre is closing, but we’re also disappointed that the city could not see its way to reconsider our hefty rent increase, especially when they are doling out huge amounts of money for arts and culture in the city core,” she wrote.
Citing such municipal expenditure as those for Place des Arts, the Refettorio and the Cultural Hub at Tom Davies Square, she wrote that outside of the city core, the city has “the tightest fist holding the purse strings” when it comes to outlying communities.
“The rent you wanted to charge (us) would barely amount to a drop in the bucket for the city’s budget, but it was enough to be the deciding factor in the theatre’s closing,” she wrote.
This point was reiterated in conversation with Sudbury.com, with Rheault clarifying their rent has increased from $1,667 for the year in 2017 to $2,738 in 2023, with an additional five-per-cent price jump anticipated in 2024.
They tried to negotiate a lower rate, she said, but the city took a “hard line” on what was required.
Fair enough, Ward 7 Natalie Labbée told Sudbury.com.
“Our staff didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “They’re following the user-fee bylaw ... that council is in charge of.”
That said, Labbée clarified that she agrees with the spirit of Rheault’s concerns.
Between rental and insurance costs, she said groups such as Valley Community Theatre are being “priced out.”
“I don’t personally think that it’s fair,” she said. “We don’t even blink an eye to give tens, hundreds, thousands of dollars, millions of dollars investing in big projects that bring in what we perceive as tourism or economic development.
“If we’re ready to do that for what’s going on in the core of our city, then we should also be able to extend that support and resource on a smaller level to make sure all these smaller organizations can remain successful.”
Last month, the city announced that they’d set up a One-Stop Resource Team consisting of existing municipal staff whom community and volunteer groups can contact to navigate municipal services.
“The one-stop shop is going to be four staff who are navigating on behalf of those organizations, so you’re dealing with four people and not 20,” Labbée said.
Although Rheault noted the One-Stop Resource Team will not be able to change the city’s facility rental rates, Labbée said the team is expected to forward community groups’ concerns in the form of recommendations to city council members which might resolve issues such as this, and allow for greater flexibility in things like rental rates.
There’s a clear disconnect between the city core, which receives an abundance of funding, and outlying communities, she added, noting that groups like Valley Community Theatre are volunteer-run and not-for-profit whereas many of the groups funded in Sudbury have paid staff and are for-profit.
“We need to understand and work with them to make sure they’re successful,” she said of community groups in Greater Sudbury’s outlying communities.
Meanwhile, Rheault said the dozen or so core members who made up Valley Community Theatre, plus actors, front-of-house volunteers and the hundreds of people who took in their performances each year are now down by one long-time theatre group.
They’ll find other past times, and might join other theatre groups in the region, she said, but their unique group will be missed.
The 50-seat theatre at the Millenium Centre was a unique space to perform in, she said, adding that with two productions per year over the last 25 years, plus concerts, they never had a dud.
“There are people who are heartbroken over losing the theatre, but we had a good 25 years and were successful in every single production,” she said.
“We did it because it’s something we love to do for our community, and we certainly hope that no other organization will go through this.”
Valley Community Theatre was founded 25 years ago by Ron Babin and Marcel Gauthier, who wanted live theatre without having to leave The Valley.
They initially worked out of local schools, and set up shop in the Millennium Resource Centre in 2012 in a space which members renovated to accommodate a theatre.
In 2017, they secured almost $33,000 in federal funding to improve the building's accessibility.
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.