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Report pushes merger for three city-owned theatres

Facing sale not long ago, Toronto’s civic-owned theatres will now try to run more efficiently, with a single management.
June 24, 2015
By Martin Knelman

After four years of uncertainty, Toronto’s three civic-owned theatres - the Sony Centre, St. Lawrence Centre and the Toronto Centre for the Arts - are about to be merged, the Star has learned.

In response to which, many insiders might say: Good outcome, but why did it take so long?

Answer: It’s complicated.

A report from the city manager and other city staff - likely to be unveiled this week - recommends “consolidating the operations” of the three under a single board of directors, whose greatest task would be to “oversee the process of integrating operations.”

That represents a huge improvement over previous plans to save money by selling or leasing any or all of them.

The Civic Theatres Report, as it is officially dubbed, will go to executive committee next week, and will be considered by full city council on July 8 or 9. The new, larger organization in the new plan would be called Civic Theatres Toronto. Instead of having a CEO for each of the three theatres, there would be one CEO - to be recruited through a search - presiding over all three.

And a 13-member super-board would replace the three existing boards, which would all be dissolved as of July 9.
The new board would include five council members and eight citizen members.

And here is one new twist proposed in the new report: creating an independent and charitable Cultural Programming Trust to enhance programming opportunities. Translation: the purpose of the trust would be to raise money for projects at the three theatres in addition to their traditional revenues.

Currently each of the three gets a subsidy from the city. The total annual price tag is over $4 million.

“The city will continue to subsidize the theatres,” says Councillor Gary Crawford, who has been a driving force behind the report along with former city manager Joe Pennachetti.

The city manager recommends that council approve “a new operating model with a mandate that consolidates the operation of the city’s three current civic theatres into a single organization with a mandate to provide quality performance and event facilities and to promote its contribution to the artistic, cultural and social vitality of Toronto and its communities.

The change is expected to result ultimately in cost savings of about $500,000 a year. In the short term, the savings are expected to offset costs associated with the transition.

The long road that led to the proposed merger started in September 2011, when during the cost-cutting Rob Ford era, the city manager was asked to determine options for the sale, lease or new operating arrangements for each of the three theatres.

At the time, Ford established a five-member task force, led by Crawford - a key figure in the affairs of all three theatres for the past few years - to examine the role the theatres play in the city’s culture and economy and recommend what the options were.

After three months of consultations with stakeholders and managers, the task force recommended ending its subsidy of over $1 million annually to the Sony Centre - but continue to protect the St. Lawrence Centre and the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

The plan was to sell the Sony Centre or find a manager to operate it without subsidy.

Even the two other theatres could be sold, but only if community access to their performance spaces were protected.

Fortunately there were no tempting offers to buy any of the three theatres - each of which enhances the city both culturally and economically. And now that the Ford era is over, no one wants to lose them.

The new plan, likely to be approved within weeks by city council, means that eight performance spaces at three buildings - two downtown and one in the area that was formerly North York. There are great expectations that consolidation will yield a higher level of activity at all three centres as well as cost savings.

It may be too soon to declare victory for Toronto’s arts community, but this already has the feel of a happy ending.