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the post as university president. Lightstone was a big believer in taking Brock from its perch on the Niagara Escarpment and into the community surrounding it. Two years later, the downtown presented itself as the ideal conduit for bringing Brock down the hill. The Canada Hair Cloth Co. was ceasing operations in its historic factory in the valley behind St. Paul Street. Another downtown building was about to need a new tenant, and Hale had a prospective candidate in the School of Fine and Performing Arts.


By this point, the City and Brock had already formalized a partnership to create a shared academic and cultural space that both the university and local arts groups could use. Those users were consulted throughout the entire planning process for the centre, providing great input on how to meet their collective needs as performers and give audiences their best.


The words spoken by Robert Cooper, artistic director of Chorus Niagara, at the 2010 demolition ceremony still ring true today, reflecting arts groups’ excitement for the new performance venue.


“Music, theatre, dance, cinema, the visual arts will now have a haven of excellence where they can merge, intersect, interact and create new worlds of creative discovery and diversity,” Cooper said. “I know I speak for all the arts


community when I say we’re thrilled at the prospect of what lies ahead. We’re excited by the potential for exploration and deeply appreciative to all levels of government for bringing us to this very magical moment.”


Everything seemed to be falling into place by 2008 for a project that would give students and residents their arts hub. Optimism about the future of St. Catharines’ flagging downtown was on the rise, which from Coun. Mark Elliott’s perspective, had hit its lowest point. Elliott ran a downtown business for more than 30 years and witnessed the steady decline of a core with great potential with equally great frustration. “It was almost intolerable,” he recalled about the downtown’s state.


When Elliott was elected to council in 2006, he was determined to change its fortunes. Nine years later, having sat as a councillor on virtually every committee involved in the arts centre project, he’s filled with equal parts hope for the future of the downtown and the reality that its revitalization is still a work in progress.


“From the merchant’s point of view, all the way through (the performing arts centre project) there was optimism starting to occur,” he says. “We took steps to build this opportunity but the reality is, revitalization doesn’t happen overnight. It happens down the road. There was a lot of pain to make a gain.”


Now St. Catharines and Niagara are about to realize those gains. In September, about 500 students started classes in the renovated Canada Hair Cloth building, now the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts, named after the late fibre artist Marilyn I. Walker, who sat on Hale’s advisory committee and pushed the project along with her $15 million gift. It’s a long way from the basement of the Schmon Tower, and has catapulted students and faculty to the prominence that Hale had promised them.


Just steps away from it, is the long- awaited FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, a world-class building St. Catharines has been wanting and needing for more than 50 years. When the 95,000-square foot centre opens its doors officially this fall,it will not only meet the needs of local, national and international artists, but also carry on the high-calibre roster of performances for which Brock’s former Centre for the Arts was known.


Many of the Centre for the Arts staff saw were offered similar positions at the new municipally run centre, which boasts Partridge Hall for concerts, the Cairns Recital Hall, Robertson Theatre and a film theatre. Each hall and theatre was built in consultation with local performing arts organizations.


Walker School Director Derek Knight calls it “an exquisite space” that was designed by renowned firm Diamond


16 CENTRESTAGE


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