Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/6/2008 (4878 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
I was in the Morden Collegiate gym the day in December of 2005 that 500 students gave philanthropist, industrialist, and hometown native John Buhler a standing ovation for his astounding gift of $5 million towards a high school performing arts centre.
Everyone appeared to be onside, everyone appeared to be enthusiastic, and everyone seemed to be in agreement that the whole thing could be done for $7 million. It was believed to be the largest single gift ever made to a public high school in Canada, and it would have built the first public high school theatre and performing arts complex in Manitoba.
Now it's all fallen apart, Buhler saying that he's squandered $1.25 million, that the community of Morden has shunned his gift, that it's the greatest disappointment of his life.
Buhler says that once the glee had passed, people were contacting him, telling him that Morden neither needs nor wants a performing arts centre at the high school. He got e-mails from people who wanted him to scrap the theatre and build the community an indoor swimming pool instead.
That day in 2005, Buhler told the packed house at Morden Collegiate that he used to listen to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and dream of building a state-of-the-art concert hall for his home town of Morden.
Performing Arts Centre would have 650 to 750 fixed seats, as well as four classrooms for fine arts courses. It was supposed to open around the fall of 2009.
"I used to sit in the concert hall in Winnipeg and dream of a concert hall in Morden
," he said.
said the stage would be big enough to hold the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra -- which he expectsed to perform regularly in Morden
-- and "a lighting system second to none."
said he'd like to see season tickets go on sale as early as 2006 for performances by professional musicians and touring theatre groups, and he'd like to see the performing arts centre in use by community groups year-round.
named both the WSO and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra as potential regular visitors to the new concert hall -- two groups to which he has given generously over the years.
And then it all went sideways.
Western School Division abandoned the project recently, after concluding that unanticipated delays and cost overruns no longer made it feasible. Buhler will give the remaining $3.75 million to other projects in Morden that he has yet to choose.
Almost from the start, the project took longer than expected to come together. Western School Division changed architects. Costs began to soar. By last fall, the cost had reached $10.8 million. Western trustees capped the project at $7 million, but that meant huge reductions in the sophisticated and costly equipment, including the 'fly tower' that Buhler coveted that would have allowed the stage to be raised or lowered.
This morning, someone using provincial government e-mail pointed out that those figures do not include $4 million that the project would have required the municipality spend to tear down and rebuild the adjacent curling rink, and move other facilities in the contiguous ball park to accommodate the performing arts centre and its parking area.
Was $7 million realistic for a project of this scope? Was Buhler's vision far too grand for the money, too large a task to lay on a tiny school division, too far-reaching to bring to a community without bringing the municipality and other parties into the operation?
The figure of $7 million the ballpark price for similar projects that went nowhere because of lack of money. Transcona Collegiate, Grant Park High School, Stonewall Collegiate, U of W with its Fame-style new high school, and a consortium of the former Fort Garry, Assiniboine South and Morris-Macdonald school divisions which would have built at U of M, they were all talking that kind of money when they bandied about high school theatre projects.
But they were talking $7 million in 1998, for projects that didn't have as many state-of-the-art features as Morden Collegiate's, setting a figure a decade before construction costs went through the roof.
Keep in mind that Western School Division is one of Manitoba's smallest. Only seven divisions have fewer students, and Western has only four schools, all in Morden. This project was enormous.
Buhler stepped forward with his vision and his gift, not long after Morden had spent unwelcome time in the national media spotlight over the furore about the high school's team name and the caricatures it had used for decades.
Only a few students and teachers had understood why Morden Mohawks and tomahawk-wielding caricatures would offend anyone, but they'd eventually persuaded the school board to change the team name, a dispute that divided the community.
Only two school trustees remain from that time. The division has since had several superintendents, the secretary-treasurer from the days of the Mohawks' dispute is now retired and is a trustee, the high school principal has changed. There's a new mayor, succeeding the one who heralded Buhler's news in 2005.
"We want everyone in the province, in the city of Winnipeg, to be jealous. Why shouldn't Morden
be the centre of the arts for Manitoba?" Buhler
said back in 2005.
Western school board chair Dave McAndrew told the gathering that day that the division would ask the provincial public schools finance board for four classrooms as part of the new complex -- for drama, music, band, choir, and new vocational courses to be introduced such as stage lighting, lighting design, staging, and theatre sound.
The fine arts courses would be limited to MCI students, but would likely draw schools-of-choice students from other parts of southern Manitoba, he said.
Buhler and the mayor of the day said that the complex would be open year-round to community use.
Buhler had already donated $500,000 to a $5.5 million theatre at the private Mennonite Collegiate Institute in Gretna: "It will be bigger, and nicer, and more grand than the one in Gretna," Buhler said."It is an act of faith in a community -- in the transformative potential of arts and education," said Joe Halas, the provincial education department's arts curriculum consultant. An ecstatic Cam Friesen, MCI's band instructor, told the students at that 2005 announcement a story about the time local MLA Peter George Dyck (PC--Pembina) taught band in the basement of the high school. A pillar holding up the gym prevented Dyck's seeing the clarinetists, Friesen said while Dyck laughed, and, "There was young Loreena McKennitt in pigtails in the front row."Western S.D.'s then-superintendent Linda Sullivan said, "In the world of public education, this is as good as it gets. This is awesome."
Sullivan said that too many people see fine arts as frills in the school system: "When times get tough, arts are the first to get cut. We need our artists to speak passionately to our souls," Sullivan said.
That was then.
Today, everyone has lost on this one.