We must build it

A new performing arts centre is the only option

By Mayor Mike O’Brien

Post-election, fiscal responsibility is top-of-mind for many New Brunswickers.

What are our spending priorities, as a province and in our communities? What can we afford? How to distinguish between wants and needs?

When it comes to the future of the Playhouse, there’s no debate. Building a new venue is the only option. It is a need – not a want. The choice is not between a new performing arts centre and a refurbished one. The choice is between a new centre or none at all.

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This isn’t wishful thinking or extravagance. The original building – beloved, storied – has reached the end of its use. And years of study and consultation show that simply upgrading the existing building is both financially risky and a wasteful and irresponsible use of public and community funds. A renovation wouldn’t just mean fewer seats but would result in a facility fundamentally mismatched to the needs of our vibrant, growing community, which have evolved dramatically since the original Playhouse was built in 1964.

Years of study and consultation show that simply upgrading the existing building is both financially risky and a wasteful and irresponsible use of public and community funds.
— Mike O'Brien

As Webb Management Services reported in its final feasibility report, in 2015, the “next facilities should be more open, more active and more supportive of a range of cultural activities… there should be a stronger connection between new facilities and community goals.” That means a larger main hall with better functionality, technology and flexibility. A new, secondary flexible performance space with 200-300 seats. A new multi-purpose room and more open, active spaces throughout.

“Fundamentally, the new venue should be seen as not just a ‘Playhouse,’ but rather a performing arts centre,” the report notes.

And yet, some still believe an upgrade is the right path.

It’s not. Here’s why:

  • The Playhouse was built in an unusual way. This created lots of problems that aren’t easily fixed.

  • There is no insulation. The building is very inefficient, using 2.6 times more energy to heat than a facility of comparable size. And the fix isn’t simple – or cheap.

  • The mechanical systems are outdated. Simply heating and cooling the building is increasingly challenging.

  • The electrical system is inadequate. Some components are more than 50 years old.

  • Steam and water pipes are deteriorating. Some are in underground tunnels that make it challenging, expensive and unsafe to service.

  • The foundation is shifting. The 1972 addition is pulling away from the rest of the building, while other parts of the facility have structural damage.

  • Building codes have changed. Current fire and safety codes require barrier-free access, sprinklers, asbestos removal and, perhaps most expensive of all, exits with fire separation for all parts of the auditorium.

  • No shows for up to three years. Upgrades would close the Playhouse for 18 to 36 months, at least two full seasons.

  • Refurbishment costs are hidden. Like much of the buried infrastructure, there’s no telling what might be discovered.

  • Less space. Upgrades would reduce capacity by 35%, shrinking it from 709 to 463 seats.

  • The balcony would be gone. The backstage would decrease, as would the lobby, by a third.

  • Upgrades would cost upward of $15 million

By comparison, a new performing arts centre would cost $45.1 million, all costs in. The City of Fredericton will contribute the site and $14 million currently budgeted from our long-term financial planning. A combined $28-million request has been made to the provincial and federal governments. The remaining $3.1 million would be raised from the community.

The yearly operating costs of a new, energy efficient Performing Arts Centre have been shown to be comparable to those of the current inefficient, failing, high-maintenance facility. This, combined with the aforementioned long-term financial planning for capital costs, means the new facility would be constructed, and operated, without any direct impact on municipal property taxes.

A well researched and thoughtful plan is in place to “Build the Playhouse 2.0” and it is a solid plan. A new performing arts venue is not just the right thing to do. It’s the only responsible option.

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Mike O’Brien is the Mayor of the City of Fredericton.