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Schmitt for the enjoyment of the community and education of Brock students, who use the Cairns Recital Hall and film theatre as classrooms. Not only will it shine a spotlight on the arts, it will forever serve as a community change agent.

“Once these opportunities pick up 100 per cent, you’re going to see many spinoffs,” he said. “We’re already seeing that with new businesses downtown and on the main street. For the students, it’s invariable we’ll see the number of dramatic arts companies increase. We might see an upswing in commercial galleries… What we’re creating here is an economic base.”

As vacant store fronts are renovated and leased, and once-quiet coffee shops and restaurants teem with students and other patrons, that optimism is shared by others, particularly the City’s economic development leaders, who trumpet the combined potential of this and other recent projects, such as the Meridian Centre and the new hospital in St. Catharines. “We’re at that watershed moment where we’re going to leverage that investment and turn it into a private sector success story where we attract business back and we build local business based on the fact we’re now a city designed for the next 30 to 50 years,” said Brian York, manager of economic development.

And if ever there was any doubt just how much residents wanted and

believed in the project, the $5-million community fundraising campaign for the FirstOntario Centre put that to rest. Peter Partridge was tasked with the tall order of finding that money in 2013. He launched the campaign with a $1-million gift from his family. Soon after, others stepped up voluntarily or said yes with little hesitation when Partridge came asking.

The cherry on top was FirstOntario’s $3-million contribution, which pushed the campaign tally to $7 million. “The decision to become the naming partner in this exciting undertaking was made because we truly believe in the community we all share,” said Carey Smith, chairman of FirstOntario’s board of directors. “Our goal is to enable positive change that makes everyone’s life and the lives of those around them better.”

Rather than worrying about more donations, Partridge spent the last few months of construction counting the days until he would take his seat in Partridge Concert Hall — named in his family’s honour. “That is going to be a very exciting day and I just can’t wait to hear how it will sound in the hall,” he said.

Neither can Debbie Slade, who usually saw artists perform from backstage at the Centre for the Arts at Brock where she served as director for 28 years. Slade retired in June 2015 when the centre closed and programming, including popular

HOT TICKET performances, was folded into that of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. Now she has tickets to shows she can enjoy as an audience member.

“As director, I never sat in the audience. I always thought I was the hostess. This was my dinner party and I wanted everyone to have a good time. I’ve never sat in one spot. Will I be able to now? We’ll see,” Slade said with a laugh.

“It’s just been so long in the making and I’ve been involved so long. This has been a dream that’s been a dream for so long.”

And now it’s a dream come true for St. Catharines, its arts community, its students and its residents. The reality of that is profound.

“Together, these new facilities and spaces will act as a catalyst that will forever change our city,” said Mayor Walter Sendzik. “When the lights go on, the curtains draw back and the stages come alive with homegrown talent and performers from around the world, it will be an experience like never before. Arts and culture are now at the centre of our community and the foundation of our new identity as a hub of creative arts and culture, not just in Niagara but in North America.”

- Tiffany Mayer


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