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Monday, February 21, 2011

Granting applause for Aeolian Hall

“The Aeolian is a wonderful space to bring art, social action and community building all in one... Finding a space that is affordable, beautiful ... is sometimes difficult. The Aeolian is one of our favourite spots.”

-Louise Pitre, Executive Director, Sexual Assault Centre London.

In addition to funding its own programs and facilities, the City of London also provides grants to various non-profit organizations whose activities complement the city services; without them, the city would be a much less desirable place to live. Most of this funding is well-established in the budget to fund arts, culture and heritage groups as well as community agencies providing services to children and families.

Then there is the Capital Grants fund which allows for the purchase of lands and/or buildings or the renovation of existing buildings in order to provide additional program or service space. Applications from the community have to be in by June 30 before the new budget is being prepared.

Every year at budget time, council is heavily lobbied by applicants but not everyone is eligible. Only incorporated non-profit organizations in London which have a proper Board of Directors and which have demonstrated broad public support, solid organization and financial acumen and which provide a unique or special service to the community are considered. Preference is also given to organizations which cooperate and share facilities with other organizations and which utilize existing buildings rather than building new. There are other criteria as well to ensure that the grant represents a wise investment of the taxpayers’ money.

Each year, $500,000 is set aside to accommodate the successful applicants. In the past, grants have been provided to organizations like the Palace Theatre for its ongoing renovations, the Boler Ski club to raise its mountain and expand its programs, the Potters’ Guild to renovate a building in Old East Village.

Some projects have been more controversial than others. A few years ago, council awarded a grant to Sari which wanted help with a property outside of the city limits, in violation of its own rules.

And because the award may be given in one lump sum or spread out over a number of years, the full $500,000 may not be available for new applicants.

That was certainly the case this year. Three organizations- the Potters’ Guild, the Royal Canadian Regiment Museum, and Youth Opportunities Unlimited- had each been promised $50,000 in 2011. That left $350,000 to accommodate new requests, but council quickly whittled that down to $100,000 by voting to use $250,000 to reduce the tax levy.

This year, Council approved only one project, the request by Aeolian Hall’s Clark Bryan for assistance with a new roof and elevator for the heritage building in East London Village.

The Aeolian Hall was built in 1884 as a town hall for London East. Since then it has had a number of reincarnations as a fire station, court house, public library, school, and a number of businesses. In 1947, it was sold by the city and enjoyed a number of different tenants including being home to Frank C. Warder Radio Limited, which occupied the street level portion of the building from 1950 to 1982.

The building was purchased in 1967 by Gordon D. Jeffery to temporarily replace the Aeolian Hall which had burned down after 20 years of being housed in the former Beecher United Church at 379 Dundas St. Subsequently, the hall also became a home away from home for the Grand Theatre and the Forest City Gallery in times of need.

Mr. Jeffrey died in 1986, leaving the hall to be run by his trust fund. It went up for sale in 2003.

In 2004, it was purchased by concert pianist Clark Bryan. It became the home of the Aeolian School of Music, the London Community Orchestra and the London Youth Orchestra. It continues to be a venue for a variety of community gatherings including the annual general meetings of the Old East Business Improvement Association.

In 2009, the Aeolian Hall became a non-profit organization which purchased the building in 2011. Bryan is the executive director.

Like many artistic endeavours, maintaining a high calibre performing arts centre is very difficult in today’s economic and cultural climate. Even the John Labatt Centre would not be able to function had it not been built at taxpayers’ expense. Last week we learned that we still owe $23 million for that facility which, although highly regarded and very successful, still returns only about half a million dollars to the city while costing us about $4M in debt servicing per year.

The Aeolian Hall is a heritage building with all the costs implicit in that designation. It has a large contingent of dedicated volunteers who fundraise and operate the facility. It continues to partner with many arts groups, including the Home County Folk Festival and Sunfest, and to bring high calibre Canadian performing artists to London. It is the lynchpin in the revitalization in Old East London. It was recently nominated as one of the top 10 halls in Canada by CBC radio listeners.

Council voted to provide $100, 000 this year and $50,000 next year to help with ensuring that it has a roof to protect this jewel and to help pay for an elevator that will meet provincial standards.

Despite a prolonged debate in which it appeared that a number of councillors, chief among them Ward 4 Councillor Steve Orser in whose ward the building is located, were critical of the proposal, the motion was supported by everyone except Ward 2 Councillor Bill Armstrong, Ward 10 Councillor (Mr. No) Paul VanMeerbergen, and Ward 14 Councillor Sandy White, who felt assistance should be in the form of a loan rather than a grant. Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson, as owner of a competing private concert hall in the former Imax Theatre, declared a conflict of interest.

Compared to the JLC, this is a bargain. Londoners get to save a spectacular heritage building, attract fabulous talent from within the community and around the country, support a community hub in an area which is in desperate need of revitalization, and leverage the additional funds that will be required to make it all work. This is an investment in the arts, in the community, in our economic well-being.

Well done, councillors.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's quite possible that Ward 4 Councillor Stevie Orser didn't have time to read the budget submission from the not-for-profit Aeoilan Hall in his ward.

When you're "full-time" as he is, these things tend to happen, notwithstanding the fact he has the lightest committee workload of anyone of London city council.

In any event, it's good to see that he voted the right way after he saw which way the wind was blowing.

He's a real community leader.