An impassioned debate during municipal budget talks has drawn attention to funding for the Place Des Arts project, a downtown cultural facility currently projected to open next year.
The fourth day of City of Greater Sudbury 2022 budget deliberations ground to a halt on Dec. 7 during a debate centred on a $110,787 increase to Place des Arts’s annual operational grant, which would top up the existing $149,213 municipal commitment to a total of $260,000.
The request has been on the table since 2019, when city council’s chief counterpoint in denying the full amount was that the facility wasn’t yet operational, so why fund the full cost?
Now that it’s expected to open next year, the request has re-emerged.
It came up approximately six hours into the Dec. 7 budget meeting, by which time city council already faced a 3.4-per-cent 2022 tax levy increase against their end goal of three per cent.
Upon hearing some of the resulting back and forth around virtual council chambers about potentially paring down the increase by denying Place des Arts’ full request for another year, Mayor Brian Bigger said that he was “really disappointed” in what he was hearing.
After some further discussion, Ward 12 Coun. Joscelyne Landry-Altmann cut things off with a successful motion to adjourn the meeting.
“This is a very important project for our community that deserves the attention and the recognition of the work that’s been done by all the groups involved,” she said before the meeting came to a close.
The funding request will re-emerge during the fifth day of budget deliberations on Dec. 15, but Place des Arts board chair Alain Richard said he’s optimistic city council will vote in its favour.
“So far, we’ve had their support behind the project and we’ve delivered as we promised every step along the way, so we have confidence they’re going to see a strong partnership that can really help the community,” he said, adding that they’ve prepared a holistic vision that anticipates they receive the full funding request by the time it opens.
It’s difficult to say how city council declining this funding might affect operations, as he said it was also anticipated to help spur the federal and provincial governments to contribute funds.
“We’d have to go back and relook at the model and what it means.”
Similar to the goal for operational costs, all three levels of government came together to make the $30-million downtown Sudbury facility a reality, with the city contributing $5.5 million, the province pledging $8.25 million and the federal government putting forward $12.5 million.
Not-for-profit arts buildings such as this, which includes multipurpose meeting rooms and a theatre space, ideally operate with the help of subsidization, with Place des Arts slated to generate 60 per cent of their required revenue internally.
A business case prepared by city administration notes that “comparable organizations typically only achieve the 30-per-cent mark in terms of self-generated revenue.”
Richard said they’re well on their way to achieving their 60-per-cent target and have already booked the theatre and multipurpose rooms for 270 days in 2022.
“For a theatre that’s not open and not made available for the public to visit or imagine how it would feel like, that’s just stellar,” he said, adding that he’d consider anything greater than 250 a decent level of occupancy.
“They’re all kind of tentative at this point, and some of the arts organizations have to do bookings a year, two or three in advance, so it’s trying to match those rigorous date requirements with our very unknown opening at this point.”
Various complications related to the COVID-19 pandemic have postponed the facility’s grand opening to sometime next year, and Richard said he’s not prepared to hazard a guess as to when that might be but that their goal remains as soon as possible.
“Large construction projects come with challenges, and the schedule; a lot of the things have been completely outside of our control or the general contractor’s control.”
Aiding in these complications was a duo of funding announcements in August, which he credits with helping fill in the financial gaps and keep them on budget.
FedNor’s Northern Ontario Development Fund and the Canadian Heritage Canada Cultural Spaces Fund both chipped in half of the $1.1-million boost, which also included the purchase of equipment.
With this, Richard said the facility will not only remain on financial track but also “fully equipped to the latest technology so all of these arts organizations renting the space will no longer need to bring in equipment from Toronto every time, so a lot of their costs will go down.”
Although Francophone in spirit and headed by various longstanding Francophone community organizations coming together, Richard clarified that Place des Arts is intended for the entire community regardless of language or cultural background, and that anything short of that wouldn’t create the critical mass required to make it a success.
The facility, when fully open, is expected to contribute approximately $7 million to the economy annually, Richard said, and create “a strong environment where people want to live, move to, and be part of our community.”
“We want to be able to broadcast Sudbury, attract the shows in town we’re looking for,” he said. “We want to be part of that tourism, that attraction.”
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.