Fate of Fisher theatre to be decided at Barrie city council on Monday

Current budget not enough for state-of-the art theatre/conference centre

The curtain could come down on the Fisher theatre at Monday’s Barrie city council meeting.

Council is expected to rubberstamp a decision made at last week’s general committee meeting to demolish the facility located on the former Barrie Central Collegiate property on Dunlop Street West.

At that meeting, council also gave tentative approval to put plans for a new theatre and conference centre on hold for 12 months, or when recovery from COVID-19 allows for market conditions to improve so a business case can be updated and assessed.

Deputy Mayor Barry Ward said it was city council’s fault for not listening to consultants who gave all these hints that the Fisher auditorium was not going to work.

Ward said he was not happy about having to tear the theatre down.

“Even if we were to renovate it, it would be unrecognizable, both inside and out.” explained Ward. We need a new stage and new seating, even the slant of the floor is going to change. Nothing is going to remain from the theatre.”

He appreciated the building has many memories for many people.

“I know the Fisher auditorium has special meaning for many generations of Barrie residents who attended concerts there, attended the high school, and they may have attended graduations there and other events. Those events are very close to their heart and we can probably find a way to honour them in the new building.”

In last week’s staff report, it was recommended consideration be given for retaining the W.A. Fisher name.

The same report said the vision for a state-of-the-art theatre and conference centre cannot be delivered within the current scope and budget allocation.

The theatre-only option with 650 seats would cost $30 million with annual operating costs of $750,000. A theatre and conference centre would up the tab to $53 million and annual operating costs of just over $1 million.

The cost to maintain the property and secure the site is about $30,000 annually.

Staff indicated in its report that live performance and conferences are likely to be the last to return to a pre-pandemic state.

“It is expected that both markets will return – the speed, conditions and long-term impacts of consumer attitudes and behaviours are not yet fully known,” the report reads.

Staff has also been directed by council to look at separate sites for a new theatre and conference centre.

Mayor Jeff Lehman was reflective about the decision by general committee to let the wrecking ball do its job.

“Obviously, I’d hope it would work. It hasn’t turned out that way. And that’s the decision council needed to make.”

At the same time, Lehman is excited what the property has to offer.

“Whether it’s a performing arts facility or a conference facility, or some version of both, I will tell you that I believe this site should be explored. It is the gateway to our downtown and it’s the largest publicly owned site we have.”

Lehman said he is glad council is enthusiastic about the potential for both a performing arts facility and/or conference centre downtown.

“While it’s painful to say goodbye to the building (Fisher theatre), it’s the right decision.”