Save Picton Town Hall

The following post was written by Sarah Moran about the work being done by the Prince Edward County Arts Council and a grassroots coalition called ‘Save Picton Town Hall‘. This group (and their many collaborators) received support from SPARC’s Collaborative Community Initiatives Program to complete a strategic plan for a proposal to keep their Town Hall in the hands of the community. 

The next deadline to apply for support from the Collaborative Community Initiatives Program is Thursday, February 28th. For more information about the program email rebecca@sparcperformingarts.com . 


 

A story of loss?

credit: Tim Snyder & Wellington Times

This story starts when our community heard that council was thinking of selling our Town Hall, in Picton, Prince Edward County. Its sale would be a huge loss to all the people using it: art exhibitors, dancers, musicians and theatre groups as well as community groups.  It’s an outstanding public space. The heritage property was built on land donated to the community in 1866 for a hall and farmers’ market. The hall is a precious, publicly owned asset: downtown, affordable accessible space. As such, it was also coveted by developers in this newly valuable real estate market of Prince Edward County..

It would be a battle to save our town hall from developers; many believed it to be a lost cause.

But could this be a story of opportunity?

We knew, from a SPARC symposium held in Prince Edward County in 2016, that local performing artists considered space a top priority for the performing arts to thrive. And we knew from council deputations that there was a strong voice in the broader community to save Picton Town Hall. People were excited to learn of its long history, to discover that the upstairs auditorium had been an opera house, a theatre, a concert hall, a dance hall; the downstairs area was recently vacated, with the possibility of more uses for the community.

A coalition of county citizens started on the job. Called “Save Picton Town Hall”, we’re a diverse group of volunteers: ex-councillor, heritage expert and artist, small business owner, community activists, arts council director, entrepreneur consultant, engineers. We all rolled up our sleeves for what turned out to be many, many months of work.

Save Picton Town Hall Headquarters

With no money and not even a space to meet in, headquarters for all this work has been a hair salon, kindly offered by local business owner, Margaret Watson.

It was clear that no single, not-for-profit or arts sector player in a small rural community like ours could go it alone. In order to keep and enhance the space we’d have to build a viable proposal to council that was multi-stakeholder and multi-use. For that complicated beast, we needed a good strategic plan.

With money from SPARC we forged a strategic plan

Strategic plan you say? Yawn you might think. But building the plan has been at the heart of the effort. All important, and hugely inspiring was the community consultation, with 50 people brimming with ideas for creating a vision of the best possible Town Hall. Local artists volunteered to bring these ideas to life with drawings of the many visions. People had so many ideas for arts presentations of all kinds as well as community events and a farmers’ market. There were suggestions for income generating ideas to support the vision like a food co-op and pop-up businesses such as cafes and other tenant options.

Community consultation in Picton Town Hall

Out of our community consultation came the focus: “To preserve this outstanding public space for arts, farmers’ market and multi-use”. This clear focus was key when so many different groups needed to be engaged: council, downtown businesses, potential partners, likely stakeholders, performing arts groups, other arts groups, community groups, local media and county residents at large.

Our lead strategist, (engaged through the assistance of SPARC funding for a strategic plan,) consultant Duncan Moore, set about equipping us with learning from others. Early on it became very clear that for this project to be viable in the eyes of the community and council, the hall would need to be self sustaining, covering its operating costs independently.

We read up on similar projects. We visited the Tett Centre. We created a communications plan. We detailed an activity timeline. Because of our strategic consultant’s expertise in partnership building, as well as his local connections with businesses, …collaborations began to form.

Pulling the plan together with many collaborators

With our priorities front and centre we set about finding partners who could help turn the vision into a reality. By dint of engaging a host of collaborators the strategic plan was developed. In essence, the upstairs auditorium area would deliver enhanced arts activities and community events, downstairs would offer new space for rental and community use and outside would serve the farmers’ market.

Community vision guiding the strategic plan

Upstairs auditorium

Groove Tonic dancing at the Picton Town Hall. Photo: Graham Davies

The upstairs level was envisaged as a space to enhance and grow current uses, in arts activities and community events. Many organizations in the performing arts are already interested in the initiative. For example, The Regent Theatre is keen on renting space in the Town Hall auditorium because it will enable them to work with more artists; they are also offering to share equipment.  PEC Jazz can see the opportunity for their young jazz musician programme using the space in future. A key part of the plan is to install a digitized booking system. This will enable more people to use the space and assist in driving more revenue while keeping the current affordability in place. Also stepping up with letters of support is a great line-up of County Pop Festival, Comedy Country and Sandbanks Music Festival. Staying in the space will be the Scottish Country Dancers, the Pipe Band, Groove Tonic Dance, Line Dancing, Fire Light Lantern Festival and so much more. The Picton Library, the BIA, the Wine Growers’ Association and others want to be involved now.

Ground floor level

The downstairs, vacated of fire engines, will be renovated and provide an opportunity for income to cover operating costs and for expanded community benefit; a key potential tenant with a high level of commitment is an educational organization for adults who want to share co-located working/meeting areas. Arts groups and entrepreneurs need cost efficient space for occasional use and students enrolled here can benefit from work experience with small businesses renting space. There is a strong market for pop-up spaces for incubating businesses, such as artisanal producers and arts entrepreneurs who want to “test” business ideas in a downtown location at low overhead cost. The County Food Hub, for example has expressed interest as it has a farmers’ co-op.

Outside

A farmer’s market proposal is in place for a seasonal market planned in the very space where land was donated for that express purpose in 1866. In addition, plans are stirring for outdoor performance possibilities.

This mix directly reflects the community wishes and also the cultural heritage of this space.

But what about cost?

In order to complete the strategic plan, a business plan was built. We were fortunate to have an ex-councillor on the team with a finance background. Existing operating costs for the Town Hall were audited. Rental rates in the municipality were audited. Tenants were sounded out. Ways to increase uses were created. This enabled the team to put together a financial plan to demonstrate that operating costs could be covered. The intention is that the municipality retain ownership of the building with community management in place and sufficient income generated to cover operating costs.

The last step in building capacity for our community

The last step was to take the draft strategic plan back to the community for a final consultation,

Making lanterns in the Picton Town Hall for for the annual “Firelight Lantern Festival”. Photo: Ramesh Pooran

which we did in September. This meeting was shortly before municipal elections. We had a great turn out from the general public, including many councillors and council candidates. There was a strong endorsement for the plan and excitement grew about the possibility of a busy arts and community hub at the Picton Town Hall. More people stepped up to support and help.

We used that strategic plan for a proposal to council which was submitted in November. We await their decision anxiously! But we are now feeling much more positive about the likely outcome. Little did we imagine we were going to be able to make it this far. Our various performing arts groups and the broader community are hoping for the best…to keep a thriving life of arts and community growing.  

We await the decision of the municipality. You can find out more on our facebook page, @SavePictonTownHall or on our website http://savepictontownhall.ca/

“It has cultural capital that is priceless. As our public spaces, …our community gathering spaces become rare, as our lives becomes more secular, more withdrawn and less public, we’ll need buildings like the Town Hall with its beauty and its history to act as a cornerstone for our community. …My child has just begun to build memories like that: the first Firelight Lantern Festival, plays, dancing, food not bombs dinners, rehearsals for musicalsA quote from a supporter.

And thank you to the many supporters, too many to name, without whom we would not be where we are.

 

Some discoveries and tips:

  • Viability was all important.

This is where the strategic plan really rocked! We discovered that as we made our case stronger and demonstrated the project’s viability people began to realize we had our act together. Then it was amazing how much they were prepared to help. In effect, they’re not going to waste their time on something they think is going nowhere. So it’s simple. Be really well prepared when you go looking for support.

  • Expect things to take longer than expected.

If you’re working with other partners, anyone with their own internal structures to manage, (especially councils,) expect everything to take longer than expected. Fortunately, slower than we thought usually had its benefits!

  • There’s lots of technology that is helpful…go hunting!

Free apps. Lots of free stuff on Google enabling you to share work. Harvest, enabling you to capture volunteer hours easily. Canva, enabling you to make brochures, posters, invites. It also helps to have people on the team who understand the technology and are patient enough to help those who don’t.

  • Communication, communication.

It’s an effort but worth it. There’s no substitute for community support and we all need it, even if it’s a niche community you need. Find out what they’re thinking and be sure to make a connection with your community; in our case through local radio, local media, social media, town hall meetings, one on one interviews. And it’s inspiring to hear back, it really is, creating lots more energy for your project.

Speak Your Mind

*