Community groups propose new arts and recreation centre space

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Multiple nonprofit groups on Salt Spring responsible for providing performing arts and indoor recreational activities have recently arrived at one conclusion: the island is in desperate need of dedicated space to house these activities.

Years of shuffling around equipment and competing for practice time have culminated in a concerted effort to change the situation. A community survey funded by the Salt Spring Foundation and launched by Graffiti Theatre this week is intended to show the way forward.

Graffiti Theatre’s executive director Rebecca Nygard, who also serves as operating director for Salt Spring Gymnastics, said there are very few appropriate facilities for theatre and band programs, and the same goes for recreational programs that take up a lot of floor space and have large equipment needs such as gymnastics and circus.

“These groups collectively face a massive shortchange in available space even though they form the backbone of our community culture and represent the involvement of thousands of people ages 1 to 90-plus,” Nygard observed.

ArtSpring is the island’s official arts centre but it is essentially available just for performances, other than weekly times reserved for resident visual art groups. As well, Nygard noted there is competition for stage time and the 250-seat theatre doesn’t work for more intimate performances such as Fringe-style theatre or other works meant for small audiences.

“ArtSpring is not a facility that can house all of us,” Nygard said. “ArtSpring serves our community in so many ways, but our arts community is so rich, there’s just not room to house us all. If our programs are going to thrive and grow, we need space to rehearse and perform without putting more pressure on this one organization.”

That the time is right for the venture appears to be proven by the fact that two parallel efforts were started in the last couple of years and have now joined forces. In addition to the needs study, a new umbrella group dubbed the Salt Spring Performing Arts Society has also formed to explore transforming existing buildings into permanent rehearsal, storage and performance space for its member groups.

Swing Shift Big Band director Derrick Milton, who is a board member of the new society, described the situation in an email to potential members.

“Most of us are used to storing equipment in other people’s homes, in barns, in schools where we have limited access. We’re used to rehearsing in people’s backyards, open fields, parks, cramped basements and school rooms where access and timing is difficult. We’re all so used this that many people find it hard to imagine a better system,” Milton said.

Graffiti initiated early discussions about the need for a new arts centre with companies it has traditionally worked closely with, such as exitStageLeft Productions, StageCoach Theatre School and RainWood Dance Studio. Those conversations also extended to Salt Spring Gymnastics and Tsunami Circus, which is presently limited to 20 participants and structured like a sports team run through Salt Spring Island Middle School.

Based on the requirements of some of these groups, gymnastics and circus board member James Cowan produced a conceptual drawing for what a Salt Spring Performing Arts and Recreation Centre (SPARC) might include. His draft design includes two levels of theatre seating, rehearsal and practice spaces of varying sizes and lots of storage rooms for sets, musical instruments and sports equipment.

Cowan notes that gymnastics and circus together serve hundreds of youth per week and the demand is here to expand offerings for youth and adults.

“All of the programs are maxed out and some have to turn people away. We figure if there was a bigger facility that participation numbers would perhaps more than double,” Cowan said.

Tom Berekoff of tpb strategic counsel ltd. will be conducting interviews with local groups to gather more information on what they need. Cowan’s SPARC concept drawing has been included in the consultation package, but Nygard said the design is just there as a place to start the conversation.

“The drawing is very preliminary and the uses allocated there are only for a very rough conceptual basis,” Cowan added.

An initial cost estimate provided by Green City Builders puts the cost of a new mixed arts and recreation facility at $10 million. Proponents feel that is not insurmountable when one considers arts and infrastructure grants that have recently been announced by the province, as well as the looming completion of community debt repayment for the Rainbow Road Pool.

Milton has likewise been thinking hard about how to change the local situation for the past two years, after seeing Powell River’s wealth of community arts spaces and its thriving local music scene. He and Nygard only became aware of their complementary journeys in recent months.

The Powell River Music Academy, which is housed in a former elementary school, has provided a particularly apt model for how island performing arts groups might proceed.

School District 64’s configuration review and talk of ending the middle school program on Salt Spring has suggested an ideal opportunity might be on the horizon.

The Salt Spring Performing Arts Society’s inaugural meeting took place on Aug. 30. Its mandate is “to provide rehearsal, storage and performance space for Salt Spring community performing arts organizations.” Board members include Milton and Nygard as well as Damian Inwood, Christina Penhale, Jekka Mack, Mike Krayenhoff and Wendy Milton.

Milton’s imagined Home for Community Musical and Theatre Arts at the middle school building would be run by the umbrella society. Each choir, band, orchestra and theatre company member would have their own classroom space for rehearsals and equipment. There could be separate storage space for musical equipment, music libraries, theatre sets, costumes and props. Milton suggested that members would pay regular rent for their dedicated space but could sublet to other groups to help recoup costs. The performance space could also be rented out to other “non-founding-participants.”

Milton is not convinced yet that recreation and sports groups would make good partners with performing arts, and feels perhaps separate buildings would be best for different groups to share. Right now, for example, Swing Shift’s 17 members are rehearsing at Fulford Hall. That leaves plenty of space for safe distancing, but the hall’s only locked storage room is used to store gymnastics equipment, and that program runs at the hall three days per week.

Having a society established means the members will be ready to take on any spaces that may come available, whether the middle school or somewhere else.

“Obviously it will work better if we’re all on the same page and coordinate our efforts. If we coordinate, hopefully we can all get space and share space in a way that makes sense,” Milton said.

The needs survey on a new multi-use performing arts and recreational facility can be found at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/graffititheatre-public.

See www.graffititheatre.org for more information.

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