Rising costs and declining COVID-related gatherings push Fisher project to the sidelines

Artistic rendition of proposed Fisher Auditorium arts and event centre

Devine musings

It’s looking increasingly unlikely that the vision of a 650-seat theatre/400-seat event centre at the old W.A. Fisher Auditorium will be realized any time soon, if ever. Why? Two words: cost and COVID.
Let’s start with the ballooning cost of the project. According to a memo, the price tag for developing the site has nearly doubled.
“Based on reworked layouts, building design and site needs, the minimum financial investment for the combined theatre/conference centre is currently estimated at $50 million and not the $25.6 million previously suggested,” reads the memo prepared by Stephanie Schlichter, director of economic and creative development.
“Given the magnitude of this change options for cost efficiencies are being identified as part of the review process.”
The impact of COVID-19, including social distancing measures, also makes the viability of the project suspect. Assumptions about the project always centred on typical market conditions. But as the director lays out in her report, these are “extremely atypical” times for theatres and conference centres.
“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,” reads the report.
“The organization with whom staff were working … has indicated the need to pause all discussions. This organization is reassessing their needs and focus in a post-COVID world. Details of the partnership concept, including who the organization is, must be kept confidential.”
Council seems to agree with the general tone of the report, handing the matter back to staff until a tourism master plan is delivered later in the year. The option to just walk away from the project is a possibility, as staff have been instructed to come up with an exit plan that could include selling the property.
With the City facing a significant COVID-related economic impact by year’s end, it’s extremely unlikely money will be borrowed or moved from other priorities to get the project back on track. Remember, social distancing and COVID fears continue to have an impact of Barrie’s existing theatre spaces, as well as cinemas, and the cost surge alone may be enough to dampen enthusiasm for the project.
Hard to see the Fisher development return as a serious option until COVID-19 is a distant image in the rear-view mirror.