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$1.5M in funding for Orillia Opera House

By Patrick Bales, The Orillia Packet & Times

PATRICK BALES/THE PACKET & TIMES
Orillia Opera House general manager Wendy Fairbairn sits in the front row of the Gordon Lightfoot Auditorium. All of the seats in the theatre will be replaced by the end of the year, thanks to a $1.5-million grant from the federal government.

PATRICK BALES/THE PACKET & TIMES Orillia Opera House general manager Wendy Fairbairn sits in the front row of the Gordon Lightfoot Auditorium. All of the seats in the theatre will be replaced by the end of the year, thanks to a $1.5-million grant from the federal government.

City councillors will have a million-and-a-half reasons to smile Monday night.

As part of its council committee agenda, the city revealed Friday the Orillia Opera House will receive $1.5 million in funding from the federal government.

The money is awarded from the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund. The city is required to provide matching funds.

Wendy Fairbairn, general manager of the opera house, is thrilled by the news.

“With getting the funding from the federal government ... it means we can get things done quicker and in a more efficient way,” she said.

The city has a long-term plan for renovations and upgrades at the opera house, outlined in a 2012 conservation plan presented to council. In that plan, a number of items were outlined that staff have had to prioritize in recent capital budget deliberations.

Since then, nearly $300,000 in projects have been approved by city council to maintain the building, including lighting and HVAC upgrades. But only about a third of that money has been spent to date, and the remainder is expected to help the city match the commitment from the feds.

Staff suggests a further $1.1 million be used from the major capital facilities reserve, alongside $206,000 from the opera house reserve.

The application submitted to the government outlined various items in the two- and five-year plan for the opera house, including replacing all of the seats in the Gordon Lightfoot Auditorium, and the building's HVAC system. Portions of those projects were to be included in the 2017 capital budget, but were removed during deliberations, with an explanation provided to councillors through a confidential council information package. The city had to be tight-lipped at the time because it wasn't able to publicly disclose the successful funding request immediately after word was received, Nov. 3.

The reason the funding is coming to light ahead of an official announcement from the federal government is the necessity of moving the renovations forward. After Monday night's council committee meeting, a special meeting of council will be held to officially award the tender for the replacement of the seating. Both the main-floor seats – which were installed about 30 years ago – and the balcony seats will be replaced.

It will be the first time in more than a generation the opera house will have new seats. Both sets of seats currently in the theatre were purchased used. The downstairs seats date to the 1950s, Fairbairn believes, while the balcony seats are from the 1920s.

SDR Seating is recommended to receive the tender for $254,738.16 plus HST. Beyond that cost, when the old seats come out, the downstairs floor will be re-sanded, refinished and repaired, before the new seats are installed. A the same time, the balcony will be re-carpeted and the orchestra pit will be refurbished and made significantly safer.

While the orchestra pit has been used a handful of times in the past 20 years, Fairbairn said the city doesn't want to remove any of the historical aspects of the opera house. That's also why SDR was awarded the tender, despite not being the lowest bidder.

“Because of the historical aspect, we can't have a cineplex seat in the theatre space,” Fairbairn said. “(In) a hundred-plus-year-old building, it just doesn't look right.”

In a coincidence, the seats selected for the opera house bear a striking resemblance to the former seats found in the council chambers of the former city hall. The biggest difference, of course, is the auditorium seats will be much more comfortable than the long-outdated wooden chairs.

A caveat of the funding is $1 million has to be spent by the end of the government's fiscal year, which is March 31. That isn't a concern for Fairbairn.

“Some of it has already been spent,” she said. “We put our application in last year ... There were some projects we were working on over that time frame and those projects can be part of the $1 million.”

The removal of the north basement entrance is one example Fairbairn provided. Part of the reason it was taken out was to aid in the HVAC upgrades.

Seat replacement is expected to take place in September. All work at the opera house needs to be completed by the end of March 2018.

pbales@postmedia.com

@patrickbales



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