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The St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on Front St E., Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
The St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on Front St E., Toronto. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Politics

The plot thickens as Toronto city council seeks to unload theatres Add to ...

It’s not yet clear whether the story will turn into a tragedy, a cliff-hanger or a farce, but there’s a new set of actors in city council’s bid to sell three of Toronto’s marquees theatres to private investors.

Scarborough councillor Gary Crawford and a task force of four advisers from the cultural sector launched an effort last week to figure out what to do with the Sony Centre, the Toronto Centre for the Performing Arts and the St. Lawrence Centre. It’s part of council’s cost-cutting plan in the face of the budget shortfall.

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The task force – which carries Mayor Rob Ford’s imprimatur but has received a cautious vote of approval from the mayor’s self-appointed critic Councillor Adam Vaughan – must deliver its recommendations by Nov. 30. Mr. Crawford said the group will consult a wide range of leaders in the arts world, including David Mirvish, the city’s best known impresario and owner of four theatres with combined seating of 6,000.

The task force’s findings will feed into separate efforts by city officials to determine whether there’s any interest from the private or not-for-profit sectors in taking over the theatres, as council directed last week. “The question is, should we be in the theatre business?” Mr. Crawford said. “We’re going to have to answer that.”

Dancap Productions founder Aubrey Dan, a private equity investor who is the other major player in Toronto’s commercial theatre market, is widely known to have been seeking a downtown foothold for a long time.

In an interview this week from Chicago, he didn’t rule out a possible purchase of one of the theatres – likely the St. Lawrence.

Mr. Dan, however, predicted that divesting one or more of the theatres won’t happen quickly. “This process could take six to 12 months, minimum.”

The subplot in all this high-minded consultation is what the city should do about the $3.5-million in subsidies that underwrite the three theatres’ operating budgets. Only one of the three – the St. Lawrence Centre – supports local not-for-profit theatre. Community groups do rent the George Weston Recital Hall at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. But its main stage, as well as the 3,200-seat Sony Centre, are rented almost exclusively by travelling commercial productions.

Arts industry sources said Mr. Mirvish, whose theatres receive no subsidies, has long wanted the city to do away with grants that benefit his competitors. Mirvish spokesperson John Karastamatis did not reply to an interview request.

Mr. Crawford, however, acknowledged the tension. “We need to tackle that.”

Mr. Dan, whose firm benefits indirectly from those subsidies, said the public mainly wants to be assured that local not-for-profit theatre companies can continue to operate. “If they lose funding, there would be demonstrations,” he predicted.

As for the buildings themselves, each has constraints that complicate a straightforward sale.

Sony Centre for the Performing Arts (formerly O’Keefe Centre)

The 51-year-old barn is a designated structure built by modernist architect Peter Dickinson, who died two weeks after it opened. Besides the heritage protection, the site has limited development potential because Sony used up its air rights with a deal to build a condo tower along the west side. Once home to the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada, the Sony is a huge venue that remains difficult to fill.

Toronto Centre for the Arts (formerly The Ford Centre)

Not the city’s to sell. The physical remnant of a deal struck in the early 1990s between former North York mayor Mel Lastman, Livent founder Garth Drabinsky, now serving a prison sentence for fraud, and Ontario Hydro. The land is now owned by Ontario Power Generation, which inherited a long-term lease with the city. Under the terms, the property reverts to the OPG if the building is no longer in use as a theatre. Dancap has mounted several popular shows there, including Forever Plaid and Jersey Boys.

St. Lawrence Centre (Bluma Appel and Jane Mallet theatres)

Currently home to Canadian Stage and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, the St. Lawrence is considered to be the most likely of the three to be a candidate for redevelopment, with the potential for additional density on land behind the building. But that stretch of Front Street is subject to detailed urban design and planning rules. Still, Mr. Dan observed, the land is potentially worth millions of dollars, but the buyer and the city must figure out what to do for the tenant companies during redevelopment.

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