Barrie has long sought a performing arts centre as a key piece of the complete-community puzzle

Now that plans for a performing arts centre/convention facility at the site of the old Fisher Auditorium (artist rendition above) have collapsed, a task force is coming up with a new strategy. Will this initiative finally bring a long-sought centre to Barrie?

• A Closer Look

The first thing one might notice about the City’s Performing Arts Centre Task Force is its size, with no fewer than 12 members tasked with finding a downtown location for a new theatre.
Back on April 22, council authorized the creation of three task forces to deal with pressing concerns: the Affordable Housing Task Force, the Market Precinct Task Force, and the one looking for a new theatre site. A recent memo to council provided an update detailing the number of times the committee has met, four to date, as well as progress in the search for a new location.
As might be expected, members concur that the new location should remain the address of the old one: the Fisher Auditorium at 125 Dunlop Street East.
Readers might recall the City’s plans to renew the Fisher Auditorium into a state-of-the-art 650-seat theatre/400-seat event centre; the old one sat adjacent to the now-gone Barrie Central Collegiate as a hub for a variety of performances. At least that was the idea before COVID-19 shut down many parts of the economy, including the entertainment/tourism sectors. The prospect of dwindling audiences and rising costs led council to abandon plans to remake the auditorium.
That didn’t mean abandoning plans for a theatre to replace the Fisher and the closed Georgian Theatre.
“The outcome of the Task Force’s work will be the development of a complete project plan, including appropriate key milestones, necessary to execute it including validation of the site location and key needs for the centre necessary to inform its design; establishing a budget, and overall fundraising targets. It is anticipated that the mission/purpose will be fulfilled by the end of 2021 and that members will remain on the Task Force until that time,” reads the report.
Ideally, a new performing arts centre would be built alongside a convention centre, as envisioned in the initial vision, and articulated by Ward 2 councillor Barry Ward last November.
“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.”
The idea of a connected performing arts/conference facility appears to have been sidelined in the new search, at least for now. Who knows if plans for a conference centre will resurface later, perhaps in partnership with a developer in the downtown core. Maybe, maybe not.
Considering the task in front of them, 12 members might well be a workable number. They have been split into working groups, each responsible for different aspects of the project and reporting back to the larger group. They are:
Working Group 1: Purpose is to develop a scope of work for an architect that is based on the input of all user groups and the needs of a growing city
Working Group 2: Purpose is to garner community feedback and develop marketing and communications messaging to help obtain community support for the performing arts centre. This will include a public input presence on the city website and by phone as per council direction
Working Group 3: Purpose is fundraising  
The next communication from staff is expected in September, via a memo in council. The other two task forces are following the same timelines. A main theme of the initiative is helping the community recover from the pandemic by developing tourism opportunities.
The strategy harkens back to previous efforts to strengthen the local economy through the building of what economist Richard Florida called the ‘creative class,’ entrepreneurial professionals who pick a place to live based on available amenities that include cultural opportunities like performing arts centres. Back in October 2009, he was invited by local community and business leaders to share his thoughts, based on his then best seller, Who’s Your City, on how to make Barrie attractive to that creative class, benefiting from the economic spinoffs that a culturally evolved city might provide.
It’s about creating a sense of place where people can live, work, and play (complete communities), key factors in stimulating economic growth, he said then. It’s a message that continues to resonate in Barrie, past and present. Other connected efforts included the 2006 report, at a cost of $350,00, from Montreal-based commercial master planner Patty Xenos that called for the development of a downtown brand through the growth of five distinct districts: a culture node on Mulcaster, centred by the McLaren Art Centre; an entertainment district on Dunlop Street West; the creation of a downtown façade facing the bay, along with a mews featuring cafes and shops; a piazza of sorts to spur public use of Memorial Square; and a business zone on Collier Street.
And, back in 2011, the downtown BIA engaged the services of urban ‘renewalist’ Roger Brooks to help create a brand for the city centre. Among other measures, he advocated for an enhanced public use of Memorial Square, and a downtown hotel with a conference centre.
All of this is just a reminder that the search for that sense of place, and space, that defines the complete community is an ongoing process. Long-time Barrie residents might remember the drive to put a performing arts centre on the so-called H-block lands, where the downtown library now sits. Progress has been made; Meridian Place and the downtown streetscape project are prime examples. Building the long-sought performing arts centre will be another step along that long road.