By Trevor Busch
Rising capital cost estimates and an analysis of potential annual operating revenue for a proposed Performing Arts Centre suggest such a facility would come with a significant price tag for Taber taxpayers.
At town council’s Feb. 12 regular meeting, Stephen Rogers of MNP LLP headed a delegation presenting the Performing Arts Centre Feasibility and Viability Study.
As early as 2013, the town’s Performing Arts Centre Committee (PACC) had conducted extensive surveys and interviews with stakeholders from Taber and the surrounding area. The information was provided to RKH Architecture to develop a realistic physical theatre design that would meet the needs of the community.
The town and RKH arrived at a relatively conventional theatre design with approximately 300 seats and high-quality acoustics and stage characteristics. Due to the proximity to the downtown core and the compatibility of shared use space, a physical location conjoined to the existing Taber Community Centre was identified as the best possible site for the proposed facility.
MNP’s research indicated that the theatre business is inherently risky, as in Taber’s case, several competing facilities exist throughout the region.
“Even the best municipally-operated facilities in the province are faced with constant challenges in terms of keeping utilization high while offsetting expenses with income,” reads the report. “Most carry annual operating deficits. None generate significant profit, even under the most advantageous circumstances.”
The proposed building would have a shared public corridor with the existing multi-use facility, and multiple entrances which could serve as a reception area for events. The space is designed to have opportunities for a gallery and museum displays as well as hosting events.
The design would allow for full theatrical performances to be held, varying from drama, music, dance and film with durations of single night, weekend or long run events. As of June 2015, the total project cost was estimated at approximately $7 million without equipment.
MNP’s analysis concluded that a $7 million capital cost estimate was probably not realistic when factoring in inflation since 2015 and other issues that would drive construction costs (using 2018 as an example) into the range of $8.1 – $9.3 million.
Also, the original budget does not include all the necessary equipment needed to optimally operate the facility, such as lighting, sound systems, a grand piano, among other items. While it is difficult to estimate how extensive these expenses for additional equipment might be, MNP suggested it was likely to be more than $500,000.
Three utilization and staffing scenarios were analyzed by MNP, with each painting a relatively similar financial picture. Between the three scenarios, there was an estimated average annual loss of $511,000 (with an assumed $5 million debt).
“In none of them is there a sure-fire means of guaranteeing profit or a bottom line anywhere near the ‘break-even’ point,” reads a statement in MNP’s report. “The town will need to fiscally and politically justify the annual expenses vis-a-vis the more socially and culturally oriented benefits a performing arts centre can bring to the community, provided it is well used.”
MNP’s report suggested that a facility with 280 to 300 seats would make it difficult to attract revenue-generating performances, and advocated for consideration of a 400 to 450 seat venue to “better suit the size of the Taber population and account for future growth.” If managed effectively, however, the multi-functionality of the facility would strengthen the viability and feasibility of the theatre.
An alternate option put forward by MNP suggested the consideration of simply upgrading the existing Taber Community Centre Auditorium, including improvements to acoustic performance, improved access, improved aesthetics and appearance, improved separability from the rest of the facility including soundproofing, and improved stage space to accommodate more complex performances.
The main advantage to such an approach, according to MNP, would be significantly reduced cost, rather than a potential eight-figure impact for a new build.