Plans for a downtown hotel and a conference centre at the Fisher site may complement each other

Artistic rendition of proposed Fisher Auditorium arts and event centre. An update on the project’s direction is expected soon.

“The hotel is close enough to the Fisher Auditorium that both could benefit. Our Tourism Master Plan makes it clear an adjoining or nearby hotel is critical to a conference centre’s success.” – Ward 4 councillor Barry Ward

Don’t look now but it seems there could be life yet for the proposed Fisher Auditorium arts and event centre, a development that seemed to be exiting the stage due to rising costs and COVID-19 realities.
Last July, a memo from Stephanie Schlichter, director of economic and creative development, informed council that the price tag for the development had nearly doubled, to an estimated $50 million from $25.6 million. That, along with COVID-19 distancing measures that would limit potential audiences, seemed to put the kibosh on plans for the 600-seat theatre/400-seat event centre. 
“The success of a theatre and conference centre are hinged on the ability to draw large crowds and with the uncertainty of the longer-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on such gatherings, it is not reasonable to anticipate the feasibility of a new theatre and conference centre at this time. Everyone involved in the work feeding into the Business Plan believes that the assumptions now need to change,” she wrote in the report.
Well, those assumptions may have changed, perhaps giving new life to the project.
The success of an event, or conference, centre always hinged on the close proximity of a hotel, where people attending a conference might stay. That likelihood may be closer to reality with SmartCentres’ proposed development on Bradford Street, which could include a hotel with 152 suites. At general committee this week, Schlichter said an update on the Fisher project will be forthcoming in two weeks, adding that based on previous direction from council, discussions with SmartCentres to explore opportunities have already taken place. 
Mayor Jeff Lehman confirmed he has talked to Paula Bustard, SmartCentres’ vice president in charge of development, about setting up a further conversation with the Invest Barrie staff (to) talk about the potential on this site. It’s his understanding, he said, that a “full-size conference facility is not in the cards for SmartCentres, both for parking and development interest reasons, but they would be happy to partner, or speak with the City (about) their plans for a hotel and the potential for a facility in and around the downtown core.
“SmartCentres can provide a more formal response to general committee … we will see where that goes.”
The developer, the mayor continued, has stated it’s the business of a hotel operator to include a conference facility onsite, or not. That has happened in some locations, while in others municipalities have gotten involved. It’s worthwhile, he said, to at least explore options.
“It makes perfect sense that across the street with a hotel already planned as part of their development, whatever might happen, whether the Fisher proceeds or not, they would be closely integrated with our efforts towards tourism in Barrie.”
Ward 4 councillor Barry Ward told City Scene that there may be opportunities for the City and developer to work together to ensure a hotel on the Bradford property and conference centre at the Fisher site complement each other.
“The hotel is close enough to the Fisher Auditorium that both could benefit. Our Tourism Master Plan makes it clear an adjoining or nearby hotel is critical to a conference centre’s success. A hotel on the SmartCentres’ site could be just what a conference facility on the former Barrie Centre Collegiate property needs. I think the City might be able to work with SmartCentres to ensure we were both building something that was beneficial to both.”
Barrie, said Ward, needs a conference centre.
“We are missing out on economic opportunities. Thousands of Barrie residents, at least before the pandemic, were spending a lot of money on conferences which helped other municipalities. We need to get some of those dollars back. I’m confident conferences will return in the future. It’s also worth noting that, even without a conference facility, Barrie needs a performing arts centre to replace the aging Georgian Theatre. Having a conference facility attached would help the performing arts centre, but it wouldn’t depend on it.”
Stay tuned, more to come.