Setting the Stage
In 1987, a group of folk music enthusiasts created the West End Cultural Centre as a non-profit organization to present music outside the mainstream, support emerging artists and provide opportunities for citizens to be involved in the arts.
The home for the West End Cultural Centre -- an 80-year-old church -- was symbolic of its community and artistic spirit. However, by 2003 that symbol of the strength of the WECC had also become its greatest liability. That year, structural engineers informed the WECC that major problems with the 95-year-old building could no longer be ignored.
Renovate or relocate?
That marked the beginning of a six year odyssey to create a new venue for the WECC.
Knowing that renovation or relocation were essential for the organization’s long-term survival, we embarked on a series of consultations with patrons, funders and the local community. There was strong support to remain in our current location. The WECC was seen as an asset to the neighbourhood – not only because of the 28,000 people who attend shows and events each year, but also because of our increasing community programming. There was a strong belief that the relocation of the WECC would be a blow to a neighbourhood that is working hard to rebuild and rejuvenate, and a betrayal of our roots.
Following completion of a feasibility study in May 2004, the board and staff unanimously agreed that we should stay in our inner-city location at the corner of Ellice and Sherbrook. We took a leap of faith
to purchase two adjoining derelict houses and demolished them to make room for construction.
Part of the solution
This is an exciting time to be in this neighbourhood. Homes are being renovated. Small businesses, cafes and studios are opening. The University of Winnipeg is increasing its presence with the expansion of faculties, programming and student housing.
The redevelopment of the West End Cultural Centre adds to this process of renewal. Our commitment to community economic development principles includes green construction and skill development through the employment of local residents to work on building construction. Our expanded facilities will enable us to continue to expand our community programming for local residents and bring business to the neighbourhood as patrons eat at local restaurants before and after shows. Our community impact is substantial and we hope will spur others to make such an investment.
We’re proud to be part of the revitalization of one of Winnipeg’s oldest neighbourhoods.
Turning Plans into Reality
It takes more than bricks and mortar to build a great music venue. In the case of the West End Cultural Centre, it took teamwork, ingenuity, perseverance and a lot of community spirit.
When we committed to staying at the corner of Ellice and Sherbrook, we embarked on an ambitious plan to design a building that would be environmentally sustainable, continue to offer an intimate musical experience for patrons, offer improved facilities for patrons and musicians, provide increased space for community programming, maintain our status as Best Live Music Venue in Western Canada . . . and keep making a positive contribution to the surrounding neighbourhood. This was a tall order! Throughout this six year journey
we have experienced both successes and setbacks.
Setting the stage for a green community venue
In addition to major structural problems, the building had other inadequacies: it was not wheelchair accessible, washrooms were not up to code, and it had no designated community programming space. As any past or present staff member who spent a winter
in the office dressed in a parka and gloves can tell you – it was not properly insulated and it leaked.
We engaged Prairie Architects and Milestone Project Management to help us achieve our commitment to the community (reference to revitalization seems repetitive with next sentence.) by constructing the first “green” music venue in Canada. Not only would this be great for patrons, artists, and local residents who access our community programs, but it would also be a significant contribution towards neighbourhood revitalization.
Our new home had to meet three goals:
1. Be structurally sound and environmentally sustainable: Meet building code standards for accessibility and amenities such as washrooms, and “green” construction to be eligible for LEED accreditation.
2. Have increased physical capacity: Increase concert seating from 300 to 400, add community hall seating for 75, and expand the lobby area.
3. Offer improve programming & patron facilities: A larger stage, new sound and lighting technology, better facilities for artists, patrons and community programming participants, and be more “street-friendly”.
Our building design emerged out of a collaborative community design process, which created a facility both distinctive and integrated with the residential neighbourhood. By May 2006, the design work was substantially completed and exceeded our expectations. Not only did it meet our three goals, it surpassed all standards for creating a LEED Gold building. Our plan was to build in two stages – first a new concert hall, then the creation of a community programming facility on the site of the existing building – to allow us to continue programming throughout most of the construction period.
Tapping into community support
While working on the design, we also started fundraising. By June 2006 we had already secured more than $2 million from three levels of government and the Winnipeg Foundation. We launched the Take Centre Stage capital fundraising campaign to ‘bring home’ the last $1 million from the private sector.
This was a challenging task for a grassroots organization with a tight operating budget and no additional development staff. In 2006/2007, there were over 40 capital campaigns under way in Winnipeg, all vying for private sector funds. At the same time, construction costs were increasing 2% to 3% a month, reflecting unprecedented demand on resources in the construction industry in Winnipeg.
A huge step forward came in the summer of 2007 when Cliff Penner, President of Ventura Custom Homes, committed to make a very generous lead gift of $250,000. Many other businesses, foundations, individual patrons and volunteers also stepped up to pledge their support. By the end of 2008 we had raised close to $3.5 million. This exceeded the goals that were set when the project got the green light to proceed.
Back to the drawing board
While we were trying to raise funds in the face of rapidly escalating construction costs, the design team had been working hard to stay within budget. Despite our best efforts, by mid-2007 the estimated construction costs had escalated over 50% to well beyond our budget. It was time to go back to the drawing board.
Closer examination of the building by the structural engineers had uncovered an opportunity: the structural problems were limited to the foundation and west wall. With those structural repairs, it would be possible to keep the existing building and achieve our goals while staying closer to budget. We also made other cost-saving adjustments, such as keeping the offices in the basement and deferring office renovations and a number of fixtures and fittings. These changes brought project costs back within our budget range.
Redesign work started in fall 2007 and by November we were once again getting detailed cost estimates. The final cost, although higher than we hoped, was within our reach. We were finally ready to begin construction.
In spring 2008 the project went to tender, contracts were signed and construction started. Over the summer of 2008, the old building was gutted and structural repairs were completed. Work began on the foundation for the new 400 seat performance hall to the south of the existing building, and on drilling for the geothermal wells for the heating system. Our new home was taking shape.
It may sound straightforward but, as anyone who has renovated an old building knows, there are always surprises along the way –not many of them pleasant. Almost every week an alarming discovery (such as rotting rafters), or the complexities of installing mechanical and technical systems in the same space, meant that the design team had be flexible and find creative and cost-effective solutions to the challenges. That we all remain on speaking terms is a testament
to everyone’s goodwill, tenacity and commitment to the project!
Retaining the old building helped us contain costs, but also meant we had to give up our plan to keep operating throughout most of the construction. In June 2008, a skeleton staff moved to a temporary office across the street and the West End Cultural Centre shut down its venue. But the music didn’t stop. We continued to present concerts at different venues in the city, including free concerts and workshops for local community groups and schools in the west central neighbourhood.
More than just a building
For close to a year now, residents and supporters have watched as our new home took shape. Many have participated in the redevelopment – through community forums, recycling activities, and as volunteers. Some even helped us rebuild, through an employment training initiative for community residents offered with House of Opportunities and supported by Neighbourhoods Alive.
When we set out on this journey
, we did not see success as just the development of a distinctive building on the corner of Sherbrook and Ellice. Success means a dynamic arts organization that supports more community programming, community economic growth, a better patron and performer experience, and is environmentally and financially sustainable. Stay tuned......
Reduce, reuse, recycle – the WECC does them all
The West End Cultural Centre’s new home is all about creating a better place to experience live music – better not only for patrons and artists, but for the community and the environment as well.
Today, the WECC is one of Canada’s greenest arts organizations. However, the process of becoming green started well before we ever broke ground.
Building green is not a top-down process. Everyone with an interest in the building gets a say. The “integrated design” approach involved a wide range of stakeholders from the architects and engineers, to the staff, patrons, technicians, musicians, and members of the local community. Together, we worked our way through the design decisions and the inevitable conflicts and compromises. Yes, it could be a cumbersome (and at times argumentative!) process, but the end result was one in which everyone’s needs and expectations were given due consideration.
Green construction and operation
Throughout construction, we worked to achieve LEED standards and to adhere to the environmental principles of reduce, reuse and recycle.
First – reduce
To reduce our ongoing consumption of precious resources, the design of the venue incorporates a number of energy saving features. These include a geothermal heating system that will reduce energy consumption for heating and cooling by an estimated 30%, low flow toilets, and high efficiency windows and upgraded insulation to help reduce heat loss. Also, a great deal of the construction materials used on site were made with recycled material. Most notably the bathroom countertops were created out of toilets, sinks, as well as wine and beer bottles all recycled locally. It looks better than it sounds!
Next – reuse
Over 85% of the materials from the old building were given new life. Doors, floor boards, joists, bricks, wiring and electrical boxes were all reused in the new structure. We also harvested materials from other buildings. Mezzanine theatre seats are from the former Epic Theatre on Main Street. Solid oak doors, windows and bathroom partitions came from a Calgary courthouse scheduled for demolition. In addition to staying out of the landfill, these materials add beauty at bargain prices.
Finally – recycle
Not everything removed from the old building was suitable for the redevelopment. But that doesn’t mean it went to the landfill. Materials that couldn’t be used in the new building were sorted and donated to local agencies or individuals who could put them to good use. Lumber, wiring, lighting fixtures, plastics and insulation have all found new homes, thanks to community organizations and businesses like the Spence Neighbourhood Association and Canford Sports. When we couldn’t find local organizations to take the materials, we expanded our search to the city of Winnipeg and communities surrounding the city. In one very special case we donated a number of our old bathroom fixtures to a school redevelopment in Sierra Leone.
All this added to the time and energy needed to complete the project – but represents a worthwhile investment not only in the environment, but in our community.