Performing arts centre at high school a no-go

Okotoks: New location sought for theatre

By: Roxanne Blackwell

  |  Posted: Wednesday, May 07, 2014 06:43 pm

Ed Sands, Okotoks councillor and president of the Dewdney Players Group Theatre, stands in front of the Rotary Performing Arts Centre. Until a decision is made on the new centre, the arts community will have to keep using the busy RPAC and other facilities
Ed Sands, Okotoks councillor and president of the Dewdney Players Group Theatre, stands in front of the Rotary Performing Arts Centre. Until a decision is made on the new centre, the arts community will have to keep using the busy RPAC and other facilities

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The Fine Arts School will not be the site of a much-anticipated performing arts centre in Okotoks.

Okotoks Town Council decided against locating the arts centre at the Foothills Composite High School on April 28 in a five to one vote. Applause erupted from the packed gallery after the decision, but other residents left council chambers disappointed.

Coun. Ed Sands, who is also president of Dewdney Players Group Theatre, has been vocal about the need for another theatre for years. Sands said council’s decision was greatly influenced by the removal of the Okotoks population cap, as the original plans for the theatre had been made in 2012 before the cap was lifted.

“To squeeze the performing arts centre onto the Foothills site would work if we were still looking at a population of 30,000,” he said.

With the Town looking to grow, he said the high school site would not be do justice to plans for a performing arts centre.

The decision was not an easy one, as one of the major upsides of locating the arts centre at the high school would have been having the arts centre sooner.

“I was so, so, so hoping to have it there, and to be able to start something sooner than later,” Sands said. “That was the hardest part to walk away from, but I can cope with a delayed start date if it’s the right thing to do.”

Sands also said he worries that the plans could now sit on council’s back burner.

“The fear is that council put it off, and they keep putting it off,” he said. “As long as I’m around I’ll keep pushing for it.”

Coun. Ken Heemeryck was the lone vote against the rest of council’s decision. He too is worried that the decision will mean a prolonged process.

“I’m very concerned that it might take many years to build,” he said. “I thought it was a good place to explore putting an arts centre as we already had infrastructure built and we wouldn’t have had to purchase the land.”

Heemeryck said he did understand some of the reasons council would have been hesitant to use the high school location, such as the additional 156 parking spaces that would have been required.

“I agreed with a lot of their concerns regarding parking and increased traffic at that site in a residential area,” he said. “I also agree that it makes a lot of sense to build a bigger facility where we can get some economy surrounding it.”

Laurie Copland, Okotoks Foothills School Division trustee, said the division felt the high school location was the best option for the Town.

“I’m disappointed as we believed that both the community and the school could benefit by making this a shared facility,” she said

The school division offered to provide the land for the project, as well as $500,000 towards the estimated $20 million cost.

Now that the Town has eliminated one location, it’s unclear where the arts centre will be built.

Allan Boss, Okotoks cultural and historical services team leader, said the next step is to find a new location for the proposed arts centre, and the decision is now whether to build it downtown or not.

“The biggest issue is deciding on a location,” he said. “This is really a long-term decision. You aren’t going to build one and build another in 10 years. It’s a significant undertaking and it needs to represent that.”

A report presented to council suggested the future site for a performing arts centre would need to be at least 2.2 acres to accommodate the centre and parking.

Although demolition of current downtown businesses is an option that can be looked at, Boss said other locations are still being considered.

“I’ve heard a lot of pie in the sky discussion about location. There are so many options that I’ve heard, and some are great and others are not great,” he said. “We need to sit down with the planning department and have a serious look at where it’s going to be appropriate, whether it’s in the downtown core or outside of it.”

Boss said he’s eager to move forward and has been impressed by the amount of Okotoks residents he’s seen get involved.

“I think it’s a great thing that the Town and the citizens are coming together. The gallery was full of people and that’s because people are interested,” Boss said.

Coun. Heemeryck said one of the key problems with a downtown location is the lack of lots available.

“Locating it downtown is a great idea to attract some people and stimulate downtown’s economy, but the problem is we don’t have space,” he said.

For now, the town will have to continue to resort to the Rotary Performing Arts Centre. The 150-seat facility underwent a $1 million renovation in 2010, but space is limited.

“It’s busy,” said Melissa Cole, Town of Okotoks Gallery Specialist. “There’s more and more bookings every day. We do our best to accommodate groups, but you have to book pretty early in advance,” she said. She also added that a new performing arts centre would be “great for the community.”

Russ Wheatley, who was a member of the advisory group that conducted the 2012 feasibility study for the proposed arts centre, was happy with the decision.

He said the high school isn’t the right location in the long-term.

“A $20 million dollar theatre is not a classroom. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “I think they made the right decision.”


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