Location, size, cost and parking were among the questions people had concerning an arts and culture centre project the Town of Yarmouth is moving forward with.
The questions were posed during an Oct. 10 public meeting attended by around 100 people. The town has chosen the Collins Street parking lot as the site for a future centre.
The meeting started out with architect Brian MacKay-Lyons explaining the work his firm has done following some stakeholder sessions. There is no specific centre design yet, but he presented samples of possibilities based on feedback so far. This includes two theatres – a larger 500-seat auditorium and a smaller 200-seat performance venue. There is talk of brick and glass facades and a large public open space. There is talk of gallery and workshop spaces for all forms of the arts – visual arts, performing arts, dance, etc. Incorporating the site alongside Alma Square that currently houses the Vanguard offices is also part of the discussion.
Parking has been raised as a concern by many in the public, given that the site is the town’s largest parking lot. The proposed project includes 115 underground parking spaces, in addition to the on-street parking.
The project is in its infancy, which the town calls Phase 0 and says at this point examines the concept and vision. From there Phase 1 involves feasibility modeling, Phase 2 fundraising, Phase 3 detailed design and tendering and Phase 4 construction.
MacKay-Lyons said during the meeting a community can dream big and be practical at the same time, which he says is the approach being taken here.
“It’s important to have your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground,” he said.
But just how practical is this project? That’s what many who asked questions wanted to know.
One person said while the town has sought input and feedback from the arts community, he felt the general public hasn't been consulted with enough.
The town promised a lot of opportunity for public input as the project proceeds – including with its new website www.getinvolvedyarmouth.ca – with town CAO Jeff Gushue saying, “If we fail on the people side, we’ll fail on the project.”
Many people took to the microphone during the evening. Gerry Curry told those present that he fully supports an arts and culture centre project but feels the town has chosen “the worst location possible” for it.
“It’s not an empty lot, it is the primary parking lot for downtown Yarmouth,” he said, saying underground parking could be problematic and expensive and doesn’t add to the parking that already exists, despite the scope of the project.
“What we need to realize is aside from the arts world, Yarmouth is also the regional business centre,” Curry said, saying people come downtown to access services such as banking, pharmacies, insurance companies, lawyer offices, etc.“If you’re going to produce a world-class facility like this it should add to what we have, not take away,” he said. “And what you’re doing is taking away a good chunk of infrastructure.”
The town stated during the meeting that it is acquiring other areas for parking in the downtown, referencing a lot on Willow Street as one example.
Resident Randy Carston suggested they’ll need that and more since during the construction phase parking would be displaced for a lengthy period. He questioned the impact on nearby residences from construction, and also the economic impact on local businesses if people avoid this part of downtown during the construction.
“Doesn’t it normally happen that you would send letters to adjoining property owners on such a major decision on this type of development, where property owners could come in and give their opinion on what they think is going to be the problems for them?” he said. “What is the expected construction timeframe?”
The town said aside from always looking for opportunities to purchase properties that could increase parking in the central business core, it also has shared agreements with some businesses so the public can have access to parking spaces that may be surplus to the needs of those businesses. It will continue to seek these opportunities.
MacKay-Lyons, who described himself as an urban planner, added, “I think if we continue to just build in the green field sites around the town and we don’t believe in the town enough to build in the centre of the town, it just dies . . . I think this is a situation where it’s worth a little bit of pain.”
There were two other downtown locations the MacKay-Lyons’ firm had been asked to look at by the town. One was the site of the tourist bureau on Forest Street. The other was where the old Odeon theatre was stood. The architectural firm determined Collins Street was the best options. The firm did not look at the Parade Street site where Th’YARC currently is.
One of the other locations that had been looked at is now off the table – that being the Odeon site. Local businessman and developer Stephen Howatt is purchasing that property.
“What’s going to go in there in the next few years will surprise you,” he said at the meeting, saying what he wants to do blends in well with what the town is looking at doing. “I believe in what town council is doing in revitalizing the downtown, that’s why a lot of my money has been going into the downtown core.”
He said he felt the Collins Street parking lot is a good location for an arts centre, although he did have concern with underground parking and ensuring it’s large enough to accommodate pickup trucks, which many people drive. MacKay-Lyons said it will be.
As for businesses that could be impacted by the construction of an arts centre, Howatt said that is far enough down that road that people can prepare for it.
Kim Anderson had many questions for the town. Parking is a concern, she said, given that you will have competing interests for parking spaces – those doing their business or working in the downtown with those accessing the arts centre.
“I really think it is in the general public’s interest to understand better how that is going to happen,” she said. Anderson also was persistent in asking what the business plan is for an arts centre. As of yet there isn’t one.
“I’ve done a lot to try and bring people to this town and organize events and bring people here. My concern actually drives from that perspective,” she said, explaining she’s seen how hard it is to get people and performers to come here, regardless of whether it is a multi-million state-of-the-art facility or Th’YARC on Parade Street.” (Note: she added she was disappointed to see the Parade Street location had not been on the shortlist of sites.)
“Where is it that you see that we can even afford a facility this large?” Anderson asked, saying aside from the cost of construction there is the cost of operating and maintaining such a facility. Her questions included: What will that cost be? Will people be able to afford to use this proposed venue?
Anderson feels assessing the feasibility of this project should be at the forefront of planning.
“Exactly how much money do you think this is going to generate on the backs of the taxpayers?” she asked.
The town would be looking at municipal, provincial and federal funding, as well as sponsorship funding, to build the facility. Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood said the town is not only thrilled with the project moving forward, but the potential that it creates not just for the area, but for the region. She said there will be economic and social impact from this centre, and that the arts are deserving of having such a facility.
“It should just meld the community together in so many ways where you put dance and theatre and music and visual arts and probably other 50 arts components that you people could think of that I certainly couldn’t, and we put that into the mix,” she said. “And then we put in the cultural pieces . . . The richness of the culture here is absolutely amazing . . . We’re really truly excited about the dynamics of all of these pieces coming together.”
While people with concerns or questions about the project spent the most time at the microphone during the meeting, there were others who expressed support for the project and the direction the town is heading in.
Local resident Belle Hatfield said the reality is that the community is split on this issue and has been for over a decade.
“It takes leadership to do tough things…You have chosen as a council to make a regional arts centre a priority,” she said, adding that in doing so the town has recognized that the community, all artists and children who will benefit from being exposed to such a centre deserve a facility like this. She noted previous councils have made the same decision in terms of a downtown location for an arts centre.
To the people who are invested in Th’YARC location on Parade Street, Hatfield said she understands and recognizes the emotion they have invested in that location. “But your council has said they cannot support the location. Now after 10 years, we’re back here again and this, to me, is an opportunity.”
She said it the community cannot come together, put its differences aside and find a way to support this initiative another 10 or 20 years could pass without a regional arts centre.
“We need to compromise, we need to negotiate, we need to communicate, we need to talk. And if we do all of these things we’ll end up with something,” she said. “It might not be what we see here tonight. It may be on a different scale all together. It will be what we can realize together as a community, but please, please, let’s not talk about where we were. We need to talk about where we are and how we get to where we want to be. For me the goal is a regional arts centre, it is not a location.”