Ownership of the future site of the Brantford Centre for the Arts is proving to be a stumbling block for the Brantford Arts Block, the city arts collective headed by Josh Bean.
The Arts Block plans to construct the proposed arts centre in the former Union Gas building at 315 Colborne St. That building is owned by Union Gas, which leases it to real estate developer King and Benton, which in turn leases it to the Arts Block for one dollar a year on an 18-year lease.
Should Union Gas choose to sell the building to King and Benton, the Arts Block has the option to buy it for one dollar.
Bean’s plans for the site include a 150-seat theatre, state-of-the-art recording and editing studios, an art supply store, classroom, meeting space and cafe.
Arts groups and schools, including Mohawk College, will be involved in the design and construction of the site, which is scheduled to begin this summer, Bean said.
While they by and large support the Arts Block and look forward to having the Brantford Centre for the Arts become a downtown cultural hub, city councillors would like to see the organization own the building outright before approving $300,000 in municipal funding toward the project.
Coun. Vince Bucci expressed frustration that the Arts Block submitted a request for capital assistance before owning the building.
Under the Municipal Act, the city cannot contribute public money toward capital improvements to a private building.
Bean told council its contribution would instead be used to buy studio and theatre equipment, which could travel with the Arts Block and stay in the Brantford arts community should the group ever dissolve.
Council was unconvinced, deferring its decision on funding from a June 4 meeting until last Monday, when it was again deferred until the Arts Block pursued ownership options.
“The fly in the ointment is the risk,” said Coun. Dan McCreary, whose cautious support for the project was echoed by several other councillors. “I want to see the Arts Block succeed, but I’m also accountable for $300,000 of taxpayers’ money.
“We have to have some guarantee that the Arts Block will own that building within a reasonable amount of time.”
Renting the building until Union Gas completes a provincially mandated environmental risk assessment at the site is “a good compromise,” Bean said.
“That is our full intent – to be the owner of the building,” he said. “But at the moment we have an 18-year lease (with King and Benton).”
In a staff report, Brantford’s general manager of community services, Gregory Dworak, agreed that it was “more viable and prudent” for a deep-pocketed landlord like Union Gas to retain ownership of the building pending any needed work.
“It would not be in the municipal interest to take a formal registered interest in a property with risk,” the report read. “Given this consideration, it is the recommendation of staff that building ownership not be a requirement for funding.”
Council denying the funding, which is sourced from the city’s casino revenue, could “drastically delay” the project and create a negative public perception of a centre that is projected to eventually involve three quarters of Brantford’s arts organizations, Bean told councillors.
“This is a huge undertaking for an organization of our size,” he said. “We’re pushed to the max.”
Council’s inaction could also threaten a $100,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, which is contingent on the arts group having municipal support.
Before council reconvenes in August, city staff and the Arts Block will consider whether to buy the building outright, eliminate King and Benton as middleman by leasing directly from Union Gas or maintain the existing arrangement.
The Arts Block must also address the city’s zoning and parking concerns.
While Bean would like to have the money in hand as the $2.6-million project picks up steam, he is confident his group will find a way to make things work.
“I understand council’s concerns, so this gives us an opportunity to go back and work things out,” he said. “We’re going ahead with this project no matter what.
“We’re artists. We’re great at coming up with creative ways of doing things, and we have a lot of community support.”