At the Drill Hall, all we are saying is give arts a chance

This week’s Market Squared talks about why giving the Guelph Centre for Visual Art more time was the right call

The decade-long fight to keep Walmart out of Guelph was, in-part, predicated on the idea that it was a measure to protect the unique character of the downtown core. This was not a wild conspiracy theory; you could draw a straight line from the arrival of Walmart in a town to the deterioration of that town’s core as the original big box would draw an area’s commercial activity to them like a gravitational force.

By the time Walmart opened in Guelph in 2006, the immediate existential threat posed by their existence seemed to have passed and Guelph was able to eventually support not just one, but two Walmart stores, all while having a vibrant and successful downtown. For a time, it was good.

These are strange times for our beloved downtown. Office space isn’t as in demand as it once was pre-pandemic, high rent and online shopping have eaten into commercial industries, and those things trickle down to the bars, restaurants and eateries that depend on that regular daily traffic. Then, on top of that, there’s the people suffering from the affordability and addictions and mental health crises, who are all drawn downtown because most social services agencies are centralized there.

The downtown needs a lifeline, but the question this week is whether a new arts centre might be that lifeline.

Organizers and allies for the Guelph Centre for Visual Art put on an impressive presentation at this week’s Committee of the Whole meeting. There are still a lot of questions about whether or not the project can be done without a massive investment of funds by the city, but they were certainly convincing that they had the ability to give it the old college try.

As a project, the Centre for Visual Art is one of those Guelph ventures that has simmered so long on the backburner that it’s practically a dry and burnt mass stuck to the bottom of the pan. As a board member of Ed Video Media Arts Centre, I took part in a few meetings with the Guelph Arts Platform, the last effort to find a permanent Hall of Justice style home for Guelph’s artists, and that was nearly 20 years ago. Also, it wasn’t the first effort to try and get the job the done.

Nobody kicks the can down the road like Guelph.  

But this isn’t just a matter of the arts. Because nothing can be done anymore without an economic argument in favour of doing it, the Centre for Visual Art proposal has to pass through a lens of not just being viable in its own right, but being a driver for grander economic prosperity for the entire community. That’s why so much of the presentation had to focus on the centre as a means of economic renewal downtown and an incubator that will help Guelph achieve its tourism growth goals.

These ideas are not outlandish. The Royal Bank pegs the impact of emerging artists in Canada at nearly $59 billion and close to 700,000 jobs. According to the Ontario Arts Council, nearly four per cent of Ontario’s employment is in the cultural sector, which also accounts for 3.4 per cent of Ontario’s GDP. Even the normally stodgy Globe & Mail made the case recently with an op-ed by Tim Jennings, the executive director and chief executive officer of the Shaw Festival.

“Historically, investments in the arts and culture sectors have been missing from our long-term growth strategies,” Jennings wrote. “The arts are often seen as a ‘nice to have’ in policy making, rather than cornerstones of Canadian thought and development, and seldom as the major economic drivers they are.”

But more than driving the economy, some people are hoping that it might drive redevelopment. There’s a long history of artists moving into an area and making it hip and cool to be there; people come to immerse themselves in that creative energy whether they’re an artist or an arts appreciator. Downtown used to be that with local music, which is another area walloped by the pandemic and its lingering effects.

There’s no doubt that there’s a certain sense of existential crisis in the core. There are all the issues mentioned above, none of which have easy answers, and then there’s the massive infrastructure redevelopment beginning in a few years, a multiyear construction project that will shut down roads and limit access.

In other words, downtown needs something to get excited about. Something that’s a symbol of the area’s potential and traditional role as a centre of cultural activity. Also, it doesn’t hurt that this will activate a building that that’s been empty for years, is a unique heritage asset, and is conveniently located right next to the train line that can bring people from around southern Ontario to Guelph.

I confess, I had probably walked past the Drill Hall a hundred times without ever thinking about it. A boarded up yellow building in an area of downtown that you mostly just pass through to get to other places. What’s there around the Drill Hall on the other side of the tracks? The Armoury, the police station, and the courthouse, places you never go unless you’re summoned. The Drill Hall is only one building but activating it might activate a part of Wyndham that’s otherwise typically ignored.

Now it’s not a done deal. City staff have made it clear that they do not want to spend more than what’s necessary to make sure the Drill Hall doesn’t collapse, but it’s been at best unclear why they were lighting a fire to offload the building. Given the restrictions, there’s already a limited number of potential takers, and I don’t think the market’s changed that much in three years that a pent-up demand for a protected heritage building with no parking next to a busy train track has been revealed.

This week’s decision to give the Guelph Centre for Visual Art some time to make their case was a rare instance of Solomon-like wisdom around the council table, and an even rarer moment of understanding that sometimes the best action is to take no action. It’s now in the hands of Guelph’s artists to prove that they can build a home for themselves if we give them a chance.

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