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 could not survive in a town of 15,000 if they had to depend on just the summer season.
The privately-funded Midland Cultural Centre (the MCC) opened in late May, and it has the town talking. People are excited, grateful, and looking forward to what this spectacular facility can bring to their town. Daily tours this past 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 are now looking at Midland becoming a hub of cultural activity. We now have the stage on which we can build. We can take this foundation and from it 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 do it on its own. In fact, numerous proposed partnerships between the Town and private organisations failed 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 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 building almost any time during the day or evening and there’s a good chance you’ll come across Reinhart, looking things over.
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. 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 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.”
Building a Better Lifestyle for Residents Through the Arts
Midland has a strong base of industry and government intuitions such as the Huronia Regional Centre. But looking forward from today, Gord recognises that a City 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 ‘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 in and forcing events onto their stage. It’s also important to recognise that 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 for ‘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 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.” 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, and we see their impact on our restaurants and hotels in the area. But we don’t see their activities as being competition. I think these various creative activities 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. Either a group initiative aimed at summer programming, an outside group coming in, or some hybrid of the two seems inevitable. While The Huronia Players has contractual control of the 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 group, but is one of which they are well aware.
The Huronia Players Theatre stage itself is relatively quiet in the 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 even though there is no program of summer stage performances. Summer time visitors saw first-hand the 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. It’s an exciting place to visit during the day.
It is hard to imagine Midland being able to execute an effective long term cultural development plan without lifting Art & Culture out of the Planning portfolio, with its own seat at the table opposite the other key municipal departments, and with specialised expertise at the helm. A cultural plan is only worth the trouble of commissioning if there are qualified people to see it through and a way to keep the message at the forefront. Nevertheless one can’t help but excited for the Town. The MCC is an outstanding piece of architecture with programming potential. Handled skillfully, Gord McKay may very well see his ambitions met; a Town that is a cultural hub for Huronia.