Midland is on a roll, and no one knows that more than Mayor Gord MacKay. Walk down the main street of Gord’s town and you see dozens of owner-operated boutiques and restaurants…and very few tattoo parlours, pawn shops or boarded up shops. Midland is vibrant, and not just during the summer tourist season. Small specialty food shops and stores running the full length of King Street could not survive in this town of 15,000 if they were dependant only on the summer season.
(This is the first of a 3-part series called ‘A Tale of 3 Cities’ which explores the impact of municipal policies on live theatre in Midland, Barrie and Orillia. Read the introduction….)
Midland is blessed: its protected harbour is a gateway to Georgian Bay for recreational boaters; two national landmark sites, The Martyr’s Shrine and Sainte Marie-Among-the-Hurons; and the naturalist haven Wye Marsh. The attraction of Midland for tourists is already established and might explain why the town has been able to escape the need to avoid serious attention to culture and the arts within its own population.
All that has changed. The privately-funded Midland Cultural Centre (the MCC) opened in late May 2012, and already has the town talking. People are excited, grateful, and looking forward to what this spectacular facility can bring to their town. Daily tours over the summer attracted as many as 50 visitors per day. Gord’s wife Cathy is one of the volunteer tour guides.
Many believe the MCC represents a huge catalyst for change and development of cultural life in the town. Gord couldn’t agree more. “In fact, we don’t really know what the MCC means to us yet. It’s had a tremendous start. But it’s like tossing a rock into a pond; we are just starting to see the ripples come out. It’s going to have a tremendous effect on our main street just in terms of physical presence; it’s going to be an anchor for the whole of King Street. And this will spill out into the local economy in terms of restaurants, pubs, the galleries and the artists. And the ripple will go beyond our community. We’ve seen a lot of people coming up from Barrie and Toronto who now foresee Midland as a hub of cultural activity. We now have the foundation on which we can build and take some big steps into our future.”
But make no mistake; The MCC would never have been built had the Town of Midland been left to its own devices. In fact, numerous proposed partnerships between the Town and private organisations failed to congeal over the previous 10 years. Had it not been for the private Weber Foundation and its irrepressible founder, industrialist Reinhart Weber, the corner of King and Elizabeth Streets today would still be occupied by an abandoned movie house. Reinhart Weber was the moving force that ensured the project was funded and built to exacting specifications determined by the groups who were to use it. The 125 seat Huronia Players’ Theatre was built-to-order for the group, for example. The HP facilities include more than the state-of-the art auditorium; there is a set construction workshop, green room, two fully equipped dressing rooms, washrooms with showers, and a rehearsal space with the same floor space as the stage. And Reinhart’s personal interest in the facility is never-ending. Find yourself in the MCC almost any time during the day or evening and there’s a good chance you’ll come across Reinhart, looking things over.
Building a Better Lifestyle for Residents Through the Arts
Midland has a strong base of industry and government institutions such as the Huronia Regional Centre. But looking into the future, Gord recognises that the Town cannot rest of its laurels. “Midland right now is changing its whole focus in terms of its economy and how it’s evolving as a community. We have new people moving here, there is a lot of interest in our heritage and our culture, so we’re responding to that. In the short term, we will be developing a cultural plan, but we’re looking at matters even more broadly. We’re looking at changing how we earn our money, how we bring people to town, how we entertain them, and how we describe our town to visitors. This is an initiative being discussed by all four municipalities up here, Midland, Penetang, Tiny and Tay.”
A ‘Hand-Up’ Approach: Nurturing the Arts
Gord McKay is himself a long time personal supporter of not only the arts but also The Huronia Players, and as a past president of The Huronia Foundation for the Arts (HFA). He understands the role the arts can play in the culture of Midland…. and how that impact dovetails into not only the ability to attract tourists but the ability to attract a higher level of new permanent resident.
Midland sees its artistic and cultural life having an impact on many different areas of the town. From a municipal governance standpoint, the Culture portfolio is currently covered within the mandate of the Heritage Department, which in turns is part of the Planning Department. ‘The other player in this is our Parks and Recreation Department, which has a broad cultural responsibility also, and this department has proposed quite recently that a Cultural Plan be put in place. This interests Planning because the subject forms part of our economic development. Many communities like ours see culture as a key element of future growth.” Whether Arts and Culture can or should remain subjugated under the Planning Department is a matter of conjecture, given the increasing profile offered by the MCC.
A ‘Hands-Off’ Approach to Programming
How deeply involved into the running of the MCC and its choice of programming might be seen in the future, given the importance the facility will have on so many portfolios at City Hall? “The founding premise of the HFA was that we have so many outstanding artists and creative people in our community that what we need to do is to promote them; give them a stage from which they can tell the world how good we are. The Huronia Players are a great example of that; 50 years of truly excellent productions. However, one theatre group cannot do all the various types of live performance art forms or styles, so it’s very necessary to see what else is out there in terms of having the arts coming to Midland. In some sense we are unique, but not in all senses. We need to be exposed to some of the excellent art forms elsewhere in the province or beyond. By doing so, we become better ourselves.”
Does Gord foresee the possibility of Midland itself taking the financial risk of bringing in or underwriting a summer program of theatre? “Given the agreements in place between the MCC Board and groups like the Huronia Players, a long term tenant of the facility, it is unlikely that anyone is going to go charging along and force events onto their stage. At the same time, Council must be reflective of the people they represent. We spend a lot of money on our SportsPlex which supports community activities like hockey, lacrosse, and soccer. Theatre is not on the radar right now. It would be very unlikely that ‘The Tax-Payer’ would support the idea of underwriting a summer theatre program on behalf of the people. I suppose it could be possible, but it would be a different Council at a different time. However, I can look ahead and say with confidence that we will continue to support and promote the creative activities that are going on at the MCC; it’s an important part of our town’s future.”
The Changing Face of Midland Culture Will Require a Plan & Expertise
Facility governance will have a bearing on where the MCC goes from here. The MCC has a Board of Directors which includes one Council position and a second Council observer role; the rest is made up of representatives of creative groups and the public. “The MCC has a public mandate. It’s not an elitist institution, and it’s not meant to be exclusive to any small groups. It is meant to change the community and to be a stage for the community. The MCC has its own interests and its own objectives.” There is also the matter of financial viability. The Rotary Hall facility is designed to create revenue to balance the books through special event rentals and banquets, with a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen and a full time chef on staff. No one really knows if that will work out or not. Currently staff at the MCC is paid on as-the-market-will-bear basis, as opposed to a municipal pay grid. If the MCC isn’t self-sustaining and the Town has to take over with staff paid on a municipal grid, the ink can turn dark red quickly, examples of which will be seen in other instalments of this series.
Although no summer theatre currently takes place in Midland itself, summer theatre already has an impact on Midland, with the well-known and highly respected Drayton Theatre operating the Wharf Theatre in nearby Penetang. “Drayton attracts a lot of visitors into Midland. It’s a short season, but we see their impact on our restaurants and hotels in the area. However, we don’t see their activities as being competitive. I think these various creative activities actually complement each other. I personally go to a number of Drayton’s productions, and frankly I don’t see that type of production taking place at the MCC.”
At the same time, it is hard to imagine The Huronia Players Theatre remaining dark each summer. A community initiative aimed at developing summer programming, an outside group coming in, or some hybrid of the two seems inevitable. While The Huronia Players has contractual control of the performance space, no one gains from long periods of inactivity in a facility that is otherwise brimming with life. This will be a challenge for the HP, but is one of which they are well aware.
The Huronia Players Theatre stage was relatively quiet this first summer, since The Huronia Players themselves operate during the other 7 months of the year. However the MCC is by no means empty or quiet. It’s an exciting place to visit during the day. Summer time visitors observed the happy bustle of youth theatre camps and workshops, with young people engaged in acting, improv and, in coordination with The Quest Art Gallery and School, joint programs in design and painting. Fall programmes promise more of the same.
However, it is hard to imagine Midland being able to execute an effective long term cultural development plan on a municipal level without specialised personnel. A cultural plan is legitimised only when qualified people are granted a budget to see it through. Nevertheless one can’t help but be excited for the Town. The MCC is an outstanding piece of architecture brimming with programming potential. Handled skillfully, Gord McKay may very well see his ambitions met; a Midland that is the cultural hub for Huronia.