Is the downtown big enough for two cultural hubs? | Arts & Culture | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Is the downtown big enough for two cultural hubs?

Plans to renovate the old convention centre and the former Khyber building both need public funding, but organizers say that won't be a problem.

Is the downtown big enough for two cultural hubs?
via Friends of the Khyber
The heritage property at 1588 Barrington still sits empty, awaiting its fate.

Two projects aiming to create cultural hubs in the downtown will both depend on public funding, but organizers for the renovated Khyber building and Culture Link Inc. aren’t worried about stepping on each other’s toes.

Earlier this month the newly created Culture Link Inc. announced plans to convert the former World Trade and Convention Centre on Argyle Street into a multi-use arts space; including a 9,000 square foot motion picture studio, 250-seat auditorium and room for dance, music, theatre and film organizations to call home.

It’s an ambitious project from Screen Nova Scotia chair Marc Almon and business partner Rob Power. Cultural organizations across HRM are always “flopping around,” explains Almon; trying to find semi-useful space at modest rents. The problem has only gotten worse with Halifax’s continuing development boom.

“It really is reaching a crisis point in terms of cultural facilities in the city,” he says. “We just don’t have the space we need.”

Almon says the company is hoping to raise the $5 to $7 million in public funding necessary to renovate the old convention centre.

Meanwhile, a few blocks south, 1588 Barrington Street is still sitting empty a year after plans were brought to HRM to save the former Khyber.

The 127-year-old municipal heritage building was home to the Heritage Trust and Khyber Centre for the Arts until February of 2014. Asbestos concerns forced HRM to terminate both tenants' leases and caused the arts organizations to relocate while renovations were planned.

As an organization, the Khyber Centre is still in operation and working hard over on Hollis Street. But the centre's former home was almost sold off as surplus before public outcry led to council saving the building and offering the Friends of the Khyber collective the chance to come up with a financially-viable formula for its future use.

The not-for-profit consortium has been working to renovate and install a new accessible elevator, shared atrium with the Neptune Theatre School, an 80-person multi-use theatre and expanded retail and office space.

Organizer Emily Davidson says the full renovation costs are expected to run between $3 to $4 million, with a “solid chunk of that” coming from public funding. The rest—roughly $1 million—would need to be raised through private donations.

Almon and Davidson are both hopeful that government purse strings will be loose enough to fund the two projects, as they each will target different artistic areas.

“I actually think these two projects compliment each other really beautifully,” says Almon. Culture Link will be geared towards the performing and visual arts, he explains, while the Khyber will focus as an incubator for emerging and diverse artists.

“We welcome the idea that the public might invest in arts in culture in multiple ways,” says Davidson. “We can really see there’s a future where there’s enough demand for both these projects from the arts community and the public at large.”

Back when plans to save the Khyber were first discussed at city council it was suggested by then-councillor Linda Mosher that funding a new cultural hub would be a better financial investment than spending money on the dilapidating Barrington Street property.

But Davidson says council’s subsequent vote—which recommitted the municipality to finding a plan that works for the site—shows there’s still a strong desire for a cultural space in the downtown.

“We hope it’s the community space we’ve been proposing and championing over the past few years.”

Quite frankly, says Almon, the funding is long overdue.

“There hasn’t been a major investment in cultural infrastructure in years in downtown projects. To me, it makes sense that two modest projects of this kind move forward.”

The province is already putting $58,000 towards a feasibility study on the Culture Link idea, with another $78,000 put up by property owner Armco Capital, which bought the WTCC with an unsolicited bid of $13.5 million last summer. Armco will take over the site upon completion of the Nova Centre—currently scheduled for the end of the year.

Almon says the feasibility study should come back by July, after which he hopes to raise money and have funding in place to begin renovations early next year, and open the Culture Link in time for fall, 2018.

An open call for submissions on future uses for 1588 Barrington Street has a deadline of May 31. Davidson says her group has spent the last year preparing a thorough application for the city, and are also hoping to hire a staffer who can champion the project full-time moving forward.

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