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The Globe and Mail

Canada's top glee club singing the blues over finances

Maggie Hull performs a solo during a rehearsal with the Youth Singers of Calgary.

Chris Bolin/chris bolin The Globe and Mail

Jason Diodati still remembers the names of the kids who picked on him at the tender age of five for being the "bigger guy" in kindergarten. He found refuge from bullying at Youth Singers of Calgary, Canada's premier glee club, a place where he felt welcome and eager to perform.

But the 26-year-old non-profit group, one of the largest ongoing choirs in Canada with more than 350 members, now teeters on the verge of collapse due to a "perfect storm" of financial woes, and Mr. Diodati worries what will happen to youngsters without this safe haven.

"I would feel bad for all those kids who never got a chance to come here," the 19-year-old said during a break from rehearsal. "Here, I could act like myself. … I think of all those gay suicides. If those kids had a place like this, maybe they would have been okay."

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The organization, which performs at community events but also gets major billings, including the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Winter Olympics, has felt the pinch of the energy capital's boom-bust economy. Sky-high rent forced an unbudgeted move. An overly ambitious $1.8-million renovation to turn a vacant warehouse into suitable digs for rehearsals and offices went ahead without the fundraising to back it. Now, the organization is $600,000 in debt, and has a creditor inching toward court. Its plea to city hall for help was rejected, but an arts agency has taken up the cause, arguing that the value of the group isn't found solely on a balance sheet.

Long before singing societies were popularized by the TV show Glee, Calgarians were belting out tunes at Youth Singers. At a recent week-night rehearsal, a few dozen young people aged 15 to 26 grabbed their music sheets, hopped onto risers and launched into Christmas carols in preparation for a Dec. 4 concert at Calgary's Jubilee Auditorium. The mood is festive. This is a group which boasts vocal talents that have been showcased in 16 countries (borne by the cost of the performers), and the organization has spawned success stories including Juno nominee Raghav, stage performer Jeff Lillico, and opera singer Daniel Okulitch.

But behind the scenes, things aren't so cheery. Youth Singers, which has a $1.3-million operating budget and has divisions for everyone from preschoolers to senior citizens, has had problems securing support after it went ahead with a big renovation even though it didn't have the cash.

"I'm getting tired of hearing people say, you got yourselves into this mess," said Chris Jost, the organization's marketing manager, who describes the situation as the result of a "perfect storm" of financial misery.

"We're in a tough spot and we need help," he added. "It's good for the community. It's good for the kids. It's in the taxpayers' best interest as well."

For years, Youth Singers occupied a community hall owned by the city near the Calgary Stampede grounds. It even poured $75,000 into renovations with no guarantee the city would offer compensation. But in 2008, the Stampede, which was eyeing an expansion, took over the hall's ownership, and empowered a new community association to act as landlord. At the time, the economy was hot and vacancy rates were low. Faced with the prospect of rent jumping to $11,329 a month from $4,639, Youth Singers vacated.

While homeless, its membership of 500 began to drop, and as a result it lost tuition fees that range from a few hundred dollars a year to $1,500. After looking at 80 buildings, the organization finally settled on a vacant warehouse in an industrial park in the city's southeast. But its reserve funds, provincial funding and fundraising efforts failed to cover the renovation tab. Then the city rejected a bailout.

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"They want an insane amount of money," said city alderman Gian-Carlo Carra.

At first, he lobbied hard for the cash injection and then reconsidered once he started combing through the books. He found what he considered "culpability" on the part of Youth Singers management for creating the financial mess.

Now, Youth Singers finds itself in a conundrum familiar to the non-profit sector.

"Is this a really important arts organization or is this part of life in a big city?" Mr. Carra said.

He leans toward the former, but now the Calgary Arts Development Authority, a city agency, is stick-handling the funding plea to bring to city hall during budget debates this month.

CADA head Terry Rock said his agency is working on a capital loan program that would require Youth Singers to repay the fund and would tether the group to a financial planner.

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In his view, Youth Singers is a vital part of city life, offers much-needed arts space to a whole host of artists and provides a unique program for young people. "They probably wished they'd done things differently," he said.

During a break from rehearsal, longtime Youth Singers members Kelsey Otto, 16, and Hayden McHugh, 15, chat about their dreams of becoming professional performers. They point out that sometimes the value of an organization is about more than money, and they can't imagine a future without Youth Singers.

"I would have a panic attack," Hayden said.

"That would be heartbreaking," Kelsey added.

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