An architect looks over the beginning stage construction of the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre

A centre 21 years in the making

The Morning Star ends its series on the 10th anniversary of the Vernon Performing Arts Centre this week with a story about the theatre's origins.

It started with an idea 21 years ago.

Vernon’s own patron saint of the arts, the late Marie Fleming, was attending a Vernon centennial committee meeting when she suggested a theatre be built to commemorate Vernon’s 100th anniversary.

“It was a bold thought, and indeed a few eyebrows were raised, but the committee, in which Marie served as member, readily endorsed it,” remembers Paul Jones, who has come to know the birth of Vernon’s very own Performing Arts Centre well as one of its original board members.

Like Fleming, Jones was and still is a consummate volunteer, an artist, writer and sports and arts patron, who was on board with the idea of a grand-scale theatre being built in Vernon –– a place that would attract a broad spectrum of international and domestic entertainers, which the community would be proud of.

“When we were doing the spade work, we were told this is a hockey town, forget it, what was needed was an arena,” he said. “That’s why they bundled the arena with the theatre, and both went through. It was good for Vernon to get both.”

After agreeing to sit on the board of what is now the Vernon and District Performing Arts Society (PAC), a position he held until just recently, Jones will be among the many patrons, volunteers and dignitaries who will be out in the audience celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre on Saturday.

“Over the years, devotion to the cause has never wavered,” he said. “Expertise, financial support and sheer hard work have been given instinctively. And through it all, Marie Fleming and a few dedicated others have remained the thread that has kept the dream intact.

“Marie was tenacious,” adds Sigrid Ann Thors, who moved back to Vernon after working as a teacher from 1970 to 1986, and serving as a city councillor.

“She sent me word in every community I lived in, asking for membership contributions to the society… I had just come back to Vernon in 2001 and Marie saw me on the street outside the Bean Scene. She said ‘you should sit on the board.’ I told her I was here for family reasons, but she didn’t seem to hear me as the next thing she said is ‘I’ll give you a call.’”

A month later Thors was on the board, and the month after that she became president and has remained in that position ever since.

Fleming’s “tenacity” and passion for the Performing Arts Centre was also felt by the centre’s current executive director Pamela Burns Resch, who after moving to Vernon from Winnipeg, was approached by Fleming to purchase a membership.

“I remember being impressed with this woman, and her dedication,” said Burns Resch, who also remembers attending shows at the Vernon Recreation Centre auditorium before the Performing Arts Centre was built.

“I was excited when I came to this theatre to have a soft seat with a number on it.”

All those now involved with the theatre, or who love to attend shows there, have Fleming to thank.

It was she along with fellow arts patron Neil Wong and the support of then mayor Anne Clark, who rounded up the troops to form the PAC society.

The first board consisted of Jones, Wong, Carol Schroeder, Cecil Schmidt, Kathleen Lainsbury, Gail Short, Michael Tindall, with Fleming at the helm, and in 1991, with the aid of federal and provincial grants, consultants were hired to study the feasibility of developing a performing arts facility.

“Their report, presented on March 30, 1992, indicated a theatre with a capacity of 750 seats would meet the needs of the community well into the future,” said Jones.

The board next needed to sell the idea to the people, and a referendum was authorized by the Greater Vernon Parks and Recreation District (GVPRD) to purchase land for the theatre.

The referendum passed on Oct. 17, 1993, and now it was up to the city to find the appropriate piece of land.

“They searched around for places to put it –– a big enough property that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg,” said Jones. “I think they looked at 30 pieces of property before they selected the final site.”

The city solved the problem by looking close to home –– on land that sat adjacent to the Vernon Recreation Complex. By doing that they solved the parking problem, which was a key issue, said Jones.

The call then went out to architectural firms to draw up conceptual plans for the facility.

“Although there was an enthusiastic response, none of the designs were selected, primarily because of cost. It was estimated that the most suitable design would exceed $10.9 million to build,” said Jones.

With progress stalling for almost a year, local architect Doug Huggins, one of the founding members of Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre, offered the PAC a conceptual design that embodied all the features necessary in a modern community theatre, at an affordable price, said Jones.

Huggins soon set out to work with a consortium of local architectural firms. Together, they developed a design, and once again the taxpayers were called upon to approve it, and another referendum was called.

On Nov. 20, 1999, the referendum passed with a substantial majority, and soon after, Jack Peters and David Hesketh stepped in to help establish a foundation that would help defray any operational costs. The fundraising campaign raised more than $700,000, with the funds remaining in perpetuity.

“The people that got involved never looked backwards. They were always going forwards. It was, we are going to have a theatre and if we hit a roadblock, we are going to go around it,” said Jones.

It was onwards and upwards, literally, as construction on the theatre began with the official ground breaking Aug. 1, 2000.

“I’ll never forget finally seeing that tower four storeys high. It was just a big hole when I took over as president,” said Thors, who around that time oversaw the hiring of the centre’s first executive director, Michael Cade.

On Oct. 1, 2001, the community at large gathered at the centre to see its first stage production, Forever Plaid. Ribbons were cut, speeches were made, and Fleming was recognized by the then lieutenant governor of B.C., Iona Campagnolo, for her tireless dedication to seeing a theatre rise in Vernon.

And the shows have gone on.

Thanks to the establishment of the Ticket Seller box office, managed from day one by Stuart Benoit, audiences have been able to purchase tickets not only for PAC shows, but for productions across the board, including in other venues such as Caravan Farm Theatre, Powerhouse Theatre, Wesbild Centre, the list goes on.

Besides renting the facility out to touring groups, and local organizations, the PAC society has also become a presenter, bringing in shows from dance, theatre, family entertainment and special presentations.

“What’s neat about the theatre is it works so closely with the volunteer community. We get subsidies from the government for our society programs, but volunteers are the real reason why we can keep the costs down,” said Burns Resch. “Through grants, we are delivering services that couldn’t be done by just the private sector.”

Local sponsorship/donations have also contributed highly to the centre’s presentation series, and Thors believes the Performing Arts Centre fills a need in the community –– by providing subsidies to groups who would normally not be able to afford tickets to a large theatre performance.

“Young people have the opportunity to attend shows through the EyeGo program. Thanks to community sponsors, non-profits can get tickets for their volunteers. We also have a special relationship with the Family Resource Centre, so if anyone can’t afford to go to a show we present, we will find a way for them to attend. We always ask ourselves if we are fulfilling the needs of the community.”

The answer to that would be yes, as audience members keep returning to attend the shows.

“The theatre has lived up to its presentations,” said Jones.

“There’s something about the shows. There’s a broad spectrum that you have to cover, and it seems we do that. There’s something here for everybody… We’ve managed to identify different segments of the population to get them interested in the theatre, especially if they have never come before.”

The community still has a chance to be a part of this historical occasion, when the Vernon Performing Arts Centre celebrates 10 years with the Ford Seven Swing and Show Band, Saturday. Tickets are available at the Ticket Seller box office, 549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.

 

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