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It was a grey December day in 2010 when dozens of people gathered around a bright yellow backhoe in the parking lot of a vacated downtown St. Catharines motel.

The tired and empty Knight’s Inn near the corner of St. Paul and Carlisle streets was as much a metaphor for the state of the city centre as it was representative of the hotel’s status as a business. Yet the mood buzzed with optimism as everyone — residents, politicians, business owners and members of the local arts community — waited for the backhoe to take a ceremonial swipe at a brick wall near the motel’s entrance, and knock it to the ground to clear the way for something greater.

The building and a block of others flanking it were about to be razed to make room for a performing arts centre. It was a project that both City Council and downtown boosters were hanging their proverbial hats on to revive St. Catharines’ core and an economy hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008.

“Arts really play a role both in the economic life of our community and in the cultural and social life of our community,” then-mayor Brian McMullan said at the time. “It will bring people downtown, it will be the cornerstone of a revitalized downtown for our restaurants, our shops — there are many benefits for the whole community and that’s why this is so important today.”

Really, though, a municipal performing arts centre has been necessary for decades, and many residents have been waiting as long to see a facility that would bring music, theatre and film downtown again.

The city’s core was the epicentre of cultural activity in St. Catharines in the early 1900s when it was home to 13 theatres that hosted opera, film and vaudeville performances to satisfy residents’ appetite for the arts. But after the 1930s, those theatres started to shutter.

By the 1960s, conversations about the need for a municipal performing arts centre to fill the void were common. A solution seemed

imminent when the St. Catharines Centennial Library was built to open in 1967 in honour of Canada’s 100th birthday. The parking lot next to it was reserved for constructing an arts centre but it never came to be.

Still, the need for a space remained. A decade later in 1978, a report by the City confirmed it and advocated for 1,000-seat facility. “The first meeting was held in the 1980s at Queen Street Baptist Church where I was Director of Music for 18 years,” says Ross Stretton. “At that meeting the general feeling was that I was wasting my time – that a performing arts centre would never be built. But I was not to be discouraged and so we formed a committee anyway.” However, nearly another 20 years would pass before a municipal government would devote further thought and resources to the issue.

At that point, more studies were done, each one echoing those that had come before: St. Catharines was due for a municipal performing arts centre.

But, it needed people to make it happen. They began arriving in the 2000s, first with a highly skilled cultural services supervisor in Rebecca Cann; then a visionary new dean of humanities at Brock University in Rosemary Hale; a leader in university president in Jack Lightstone; and a largely new City Council, including McMullan in 2006, that made building a performing arts centre a priority.

Ironically, the devastating blow the recession dealt Niagara worked in the project’s favour, too. While Niagarans were compelled to pinch their purse strings, government at every level opened wallets to spend their way out of the economic doldrums.

“Projects like this rely on leadership, advocacy, community engagement and buy-in, and a dose of luck,” Cann said. “Within six months (of presenting a report to council that said a centre was needed), $54 million was confirmed for a performing arts centre. That has never happened in the history of Canada — that quickly.”

Much work had already gone into laying the foundation for a building


that would eventually house film, dance and theatre, concert, and recital venues. Cann knew soon after her arrival at City Hall that the project wouldn’t work without a partnership with Brock University.

Hale who arrived at Brock around the same time Cann started at the city, unwittingly began working toward such a venture even before she landed the job as humanities dean. When she interviewed for the position, she met with each department in the faculty. Music, visual arts and drama perhaps made the greatest impression on the dean- to-be, thanks to their home in the uninspiring basement of the Schmon Tower. She vowed to change that if hired.

“It was worse than a high school,” Hale recalled. “When I interviewed with them, I said ‘Have you guys ever thought about a new space?’ They didn’t really have hope in their own space.”

Hale got the job and pressed on to fulfill her promise to move the departments somewhere that would better showcase their work. She decided to combine the departments into the Brock School of Fine and Performing Arts, figuring that working as one unit might help the situation. In the 2003- 04 academic year, Brock’s senate approved the move, which freed up Hale to begin lobbying again for a new space for the school.

In 2006, Hale found an ally on top at Brock when Jack Lightstone took

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