The person who knows the most about Orchestra London's bid to take over the management of Centennial Hall is pretty tight-lipped.
That's because he has to be; as the executive director of Orchestra London and the chair of the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee (IEPC), Joe Swan is in a major conflict of interest. To prove that he understands that, he is careful to withdraw from any discussion at council or its committees, even leaving the room when items pertaining to the Orchestra or Centennial Hall are being considered.
That doesn't mean that he hasn't been a busy boy in promoting his vision for a music hall in the community and at city hall. He has, as the Orchestra London presentation to the IEPC a few weeks ago revealed.
With the support of musical director Alain Trudell and planning consultant Fred Galloway, Orchestra London board chairman David Canton presented the vision in a set of PowerPoint slides entitled “Music London”. He got right to the point in explaining what he wanted from city hall: taking over the management of Centennial Hall via a board of directors, and endorsement for a taskforce of high powered developers and philanthropists to embark on setting the stage for a music hall.
A music hall, it was argued, could build partnerships among various musical groups and organizations in the city—choirs, bands, orchestra, etc.--thereby gaining efficiencies of scale, expanding the range and quality of music in the city, and making it a tourist attraction.
And there would be no time to lose. Centennial Hall, built in 1967 with federal money to celebrate Canada's 100th birthday, would soon reach the half-century mark, the limit to to its usefulness as a performance venue, according to a 2007 consultant's report.
I remember that report. I still have a copy of it. I remember, too, in an informational session with the consultants, that it was acknowledged that the building was solid as a rock. It may not be the most beautiful building or best suited to its purposes, but it is sturdy and not about to fall down anytime soon.
Nevertheless, Canada's 150th is coming up and there is bound to be some federal money coming our way, reasoned Canton. We need to get started now to be ready to take advantage of that. It would take at least five years to get everything done—the planning, the fundraising, designing and constructing. He outlined a three-phased program, starting with a feasibility study in the fall, identifying a location and getting community partners on board the following year, and then lining up the money and building the structure. All done by 2017.
And some money had already been found; $75,000 had been pledged by members of the proposed taskforce, a veritable Who's Who of the leading lights of business and the professions in London : Perry Ferguson of Voyageur, Andy Spriet of Spriet Associates, Geno Francolini of Xenon Capital, Ian Dantzer of Lerners, Ali Soufan of York Development, Betty Anne Younker of Western University Music School, Vito Frija of Southside Development, Alan Patton of Patton, Cormier and Associates, Gordon Thompson of Corlon Properties, Jamie Crich of Auburn Development, Jim Good, Western Professor Emeritus, Brian Ohl of Global Spectrum, philanthropist Susan Agranove and David Canton of Harrison Pensa. It's a powerful group. Who would not endorse it?
But that was not all that was wanted. The proposal called for creating a board of directors for Centennial Hall to be managed along the lines of the convention centre or the market.
That would be quite a switch. For years now, ever since 1986, the city has contracted Don Jones to manage the facility. While there has been some concern expressed over the years about going with a sole source provider rather than seeking competitive bids, the facility has been well-managed, by all accounts, costing the city only $100,000 per year, making it one of the most efficiently run performance halls in southwestern Ontario.
Don't get me wrong; I love Orchestra London. I subscribe to its MasterWorks Series and have been known to make the occasional donation. Ours is an excellent orchestra.
But over the years, the orchestra has not been as prudently managed as one would wish. Only a few years ago, the orchestra came to the city requesting that the city act as a guarantor for its $500,000 bank loan. I supported that request because I didn't want to see the orchestra go under. It took a lot of persuasion to get a majority of council to agree.
It was at that point that their executive director left and Joe Swan stepped in. Since then, the orchestra has managed to stay afloat, largely because of the significant pay cuts assumed by the musicians, and the largesse of the city by continuing to subsidize it by nearly half a million dollars per year even though, owing to its financial problems, it no longer qualifies for the city's arts funding program.
From the orchestra's viewpoint, a major obstacle to its flourishing is the lack of a suitable performance venue. Many people object to going to concerts in a hall which has poor sight-lines, inadequate acoustics and an awkwardly designed stage. So no wonder it wants something better.
But are those good qualifications for taking over the running of the hall?
Canton thinks it would be good practice for Orchestra London in preparation for running its own hall when that building is realized. He would also like $10M from the city to build that hall which, he believes, would cost about $40M.
The civic administration is not convinced. It recommends a three-year extension of the contract with Don Jones. That will get it past the next election and provide some breathing room while the EIPC contemplates what projects it will support with what is as yet a nonexistent economic prosperity fund. Among those proposals that could impact Orchestra London are the interest of Western University in Centennial Hall and the Grand Theatre's proposal for a major expansion to create a performing arts hub.
The matter of the contract extension will be considered on Wednesday by the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee which hopes to have the quorum it failed to achieve two weeks ago. Joe Swan will not have a vote. It will be up to the rest of the committee to make the recommendation.
At the July 19th meeting, the mayor had been very enthusiastic about the Orchestra London proposal and moved support for both the taskforce and the board of directors which, he thought, could work with the existing management. But city solicitor Jim Barber recommended that it be referred back to city staff. There were legal implications and by-laws would need to be drafted. Paul VanMeerbergen was skeptical. Orchestra London still had a significant debt. Besides, the committee had already received a proposal for a performing arts venue from the Grand Theatre. Had the Orchestra talked to them?
Galloway danced around the question. They had talked to various groups, the Western Fair, people from the Grand and others. How they had responded, he didn't say.
Bud Polhill shared VanMeerbergen's concerns. He didn't think this should be just an Orchestra London initiative; he was happy to refer it back to staff. And so they did.
Now they have the staff's recommendation: stick with the current contract.
It's not likely a response that will please committee chair Joe Swan, but he won't have a vote. Nor will his friend, the mayor, be thrilled. That leaves Steve Orser, who is no supporter of the arts in any form, Denise Brown, Polhill, VanMeergen and Matt Brown to decide the matter or, at least, to make a recommendation to council which meets in a couple of weeks.
In the meantime, Swan has been trying to get local musical groups to take up residence in shared facilities at the Western Fairgrounds. It has even been suggested that they might use the old Imax, recently abandoned by Councillor Dale Henderson, as a performance venue.
And it isn't that long ago that Henderson, when faced with the loss of his business, wrote to his city colleagues encouraging them to take over the Imax as the perfect spot for Orchestra London.
He didn't think he had a conflict of interest since there was no motion on the table. It was just an idea.
And now, Orchestra London has another idea.
It will be an interesting performance to watch.
But who is the conductor?