Cultural hub has become a stable of life on the Saanich Peninsula

Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre marks its 15th anniversary on Sept. 27.

Mary Winspear Centre’s Phil Sutton serves tea to community volunteers in the facility’s Bodine Hall. It’s just one of many events and performances taking place every year.

The Mary Winspear Centre will be celebrating its 15th anniversary on Tuesday, Sept. 27, showing old artwork and archive material to members of the community who wish to celebrate in its success.

Formerly known as the SANSCHA Hall, a smaller activity centre serving the community, the Mary Winspear Centre was a community undertaking, designed to bring more — from local events to concerts — into town.

“People are starting to understand that the theatre is a great place for entertainment and the artists are starting to understand that too,” said Communications Co-ordinator for the Centre, Carey Salvador. “There aren’t very many venues where they can get that intimate experience with only 300 seats.”

One of the goals when current Executive Director Brad Edgett first started his tenure at the Centre, was to bring the community back to the Centre. They wanted people to think they could stop in any day to see and experience something new.

That goal was certainly reached as it is one of the Saanich Peninsula’s main community gathering spaces.

John Bell, a director on the SANSCHA Community Cultural Centre Foundation (SCCCF), is one of the few original members left who was around in the early days of construction.

He took the PNR back down memory lane, to how the community’s hub for entertainment all began.

At that time, he said, all of the original board members knew they wanted a new building and had a couple studies done, saw an architect and got some sketches done. It was then-Mayor Don Amos who gave the board a push by telling them the town would put up $500,000.

“North Saanich of course then kicked in with $500,000 as well, so that sort of got us going,” said Bell.

The group of directors came and went, but eventually they had a group that were all bent on the new building.

Everybody, Bell said, was really keen for it.

“We were all so keen on it that we all signed private notes at the bank to guarantee the construction funds.”

The building went up in about nine months time. When they opened the new Mary Winspear Centre, they were right on time, almost early, Bell recalled.

“The construction went really well and we were on budget.”

Bell was at a luncheon a few days ago, held for the Centre’s volunteers, and they were talking about the size of the theatre, something that was heavily discussed back in the early days of the planning of the construction.

“That was probably discussed more than any other specific part of the building.”

“And at that time, the principle users were the local theatre society and they didn’t want too big a theatre …”

Some of the board members thought they should make the space for 1,000 people, whereas others thought it should seat 150. Bell said the idea continued to bounce back and forth until the current configuration of 300 seats was settled.

“Over the 15 years it has been open now, of course, the use of the theatre has really been changed. We’ve gone from just the local theatre … but now we’ve got quite a reputation. We get (big performers) in now so we sell out a lot of the time,” he said.

The Charlie White Theatre doesn’t disappoint. It’s welcomed some pretty large acts — from Jann Arden and Colin James to Buffy Sainte-Marie and Platinum Blonde. Many performers have commented how intimate and nice the theatre really is.

Bell said the team started off with all kinds of ideas in their heads about how the Centre would develop, the people who would use it, the length of time it would take to develop — and said most of those ideals have come true.

In his speech on opening day 15 years ago, Bell introduced all of the board members of the building committee and said that they were  strangers who came together for a common cause.

“We’ve had some massive arguments all the way through the construction and everything else. I said we’re all now friends,” he said.

Bell added he’s got all kinds of good memories about the transition process from SANSCHA Hall to Mary Winspear Centre. One was how smoothly the construction went and another was the really good team he was a part of.

“It’s everything we hoped it to be. It really came together well.”

Salvador said the Centre has completed its most recent five year plan which has four over-arching goals. One is enhancing community well-being — which includes supporting Blue Heron Park (which they own) and making park improvements.

Another goal is fiscal sustainability — which involves improving the Memorial Park Society’s  financial position through the Mary Winspear Centre productions and events and developing ancillary revenue streams.

Effective community engagement is another goal that seeks to maintain a positive relationship with councils representing Peninsula residents along with establishing a new membership program offering benefits to Winspear patrons — which was introduced this year. That involved the creation of the Friends of the Mary Winspear Centre group, where people pay an annual fee and receive pre-sale and notice on upcoming shows and 10 per cent off all their tickets in the theatre.

Lastly, the Centre is paying attention to good governance. This involves improving the website, completing a revision of the Trust document that governs how the Society operates and revising the Society’s constitution and bylaws to comply with the new B.C Society’s Act.

At 15 years, the Mary Winspear Centre is facing a few challenges. Salvador stated that there was never a contingency plan or funds in place for long-term capital costs. The main fundraising campaign in the late 1990s to early 2000s focussed on the Centre’s overall construction.

“So our goal now is to start fundraising and looking at other options where we can start putting away money when we do need to replace things like the roof … upgrading the technology in the theatre,” she said.

The anniversary celebration takes place Sept. 27 from 10 to 8 p.m.

There will be coffee, tea and free cake and depending on the weather, there will be a barbecue from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. that’s by donation. All proceeds from the barbecue will go to the Centre’s Capital Improvement Fund, raising funds to upgrade the facility.