'We’re very fortunate as a community to be given a cultural centre such as this. This is the largest single donation in small-town Ontario, if not all of Canada, from a private foundation.'

— Mayor Jim Downer, on the $5-million gift of the Midland Cultural Centre by Reinhart Weber's private Weber Foundation

(Photo courtesy Howard Rideout Architect)

$5-million gift of Midland Cultural Centre helps cement
town's future as retirement community, boating tourism hub

There’s a new excitement in Midland these days. Gone is the crumbling Roxy Theatre that stood at the corner of King and Elizabeth streets in the downtown core. In its place, a multimillion-dollar cultural centre is rising up, a gift to the town from the private Weber Foundation.  

“We’re very fortunate as a community to be given a cultural centre such as this,” Mayor Jim Downer told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “This is the largest single donation in small-town Ontario, if not all of Canada, from a private foundation.”  

When completed, the two-storey Midland Cultural Centre, spread out over the Roxy land and two adjoining properties, will have cost more than $5 million to build, says Fred Hacker, a trustee with the Weber Foundation and chairman of the board of directors that will operate the centre as a non-profit corporation.  
“We’re trying to run it as inexpensively as possible,” said Hacker, who added that several citizens have already volunteered to help the board keep the MCC running smoothly when construction is completed in late 2011.  

Operating revenue sources will include rents from the centre’s two major tenants — the Huronia Players community theatre and Quest Art School and Gallery — and from rental of the 240-seat multi-use centre. There will also be a small café on site.   While the Weber Foundation — founded by businessman Reinhart Weber — has donated to many community facilities such as hospitals, this is the largest single project, and the first to promote the importance of culture and the arts in such a visible manner.  

When reached by MyNewWaterfrontHome.com at his home in neighbouring Penetanguishene, Weber was reluctant to talk about his generous gift and the reasons behind it, citing Hacker’s position as the official voice of the MCC board as the reason. But in an interview in April with the Midland-Penetanguishene Mirror, Weber referred to the town’s shifting economy as a reason to act now. “It’s now changing to retirement living and tourism, and the cultural centre will play a major role,” he said.   

Hacker agrees that culture plays an important role in any “healthy” community, big or small.  

Art and culture for the whole family

“Historically, our culture has been centred in large cities,” he told MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “The idea here is to open up the arts to everyone. Art, culture and theatre can be viewed as an invitation and outreach rather than that rarefied world of art that people feel is alien to them.”  

While the Weber Foundation hopes that its gift will raise the profiles of both the Huronia Players and Quest by “providing a huge outlet to display their talents,” it also aims to make the arts a part of everyday life through education for all. “We are making inclusiveness our mandate,” said Hacker, who added that arts and culture-related education will be provided through the sharing of skills, knowledge and ideas to families of all ages, schools, clubs and community groups.  

The fact that the centre will be located in a high-visibility area downtown will not only make it more accessible to the public, Hacker said, but be a benefit to the commercial core, which all agree is already among the most vibrant of small-town Ontario (for more information on Midland’s growth projections, please see the community profile).  

“This is a draw for all types of things,” said Downer, adding that the town’s cultural coup fits nicely with Midland’s reputation as a destination for the best freshwater boating in Canada.  

For Sue Cook, president of Huronia Players, the MCC is exactly what’s needed in a developing retirement community. “When people are looking for a location, they may not be as concerned about jobs — it’s more quality of life issues that concern them, and access to cultural events is high on that list.”  

Cook sees the MCC as a “wonderful opportunity” to get the message out that you don’t have to be an actor to join Huronia Players or to participate in its education programs and workshops.  

“There are technical jobs, set decorating, makeup, costumes ... we’re more than acting,” said Cook, an occupational therapist who practises what Huronia Players preaches: cross-training. She has been an actor, director, stage manager and has even helped with the lighting. 

Third time lucky for Huronia Players

“We’re always teaching and learning.”   Cook said Midland attracts younger retirees who want to get involved in the community. “If we don’t offer it (culture), they’ll go elsewhere ... Toronto, Barrie. This will be a lovely venue for cross-pollination of the arts — they can take in a show, then go to the art gallery. It’s also a good base for downtown — people can shop, go to the many good restaurants we have in Midland. Culture is very big business.”  

Huronia Players, which has been fundraising for a permanent home since 1967, when a building committee was established, has had its hopes dashed twice in the past, when two separate sites fell through. It now operates out of a one-storey concrete building on William Street — there’s no insulation and the space is so small that a member of the audience could stick their leg out and trip the actor on stage.  

“I’m looking forward to a building with the proper height for lighting,” Cook said, adding that she hopes the cultural centre will be completed in time for the Huronia Players’ first production of its 50th anniversary year, tentatively scheduled for November 2011.  

You can keep tabs on progress at the MCC by visiting the group’s website.  

MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — September 2010