Building classifications cause confusion, but council supports the hall
When two firefighters showed up to oversee a performance of Conrad Beaubien’s play, Bridge Street, at Hillier Hall last year, he was surprised. An earlier visit by the County’s fire prevention officer, Mike Branscombe, seemed to go well.
“At the time… the fire safety person came. He actually told us with the size of the stage and the seating capacity, that we could have end tables for dinner. He pointed out, put some fire retardant on some baffling we put up for sound, and all of our props were metal. He had no complaint beyond that.”
After the play ended, Beaubien received a letter from the County’s operations department informing him productions of plays would no longer be permitted at Hillier Hall.
It led to a struggle that seems to be coming to a satisfying, if expensive, solution.
Last week, council saw a report recommending necessary updates to the hall in order to classify it as an A1 building according to the Ontario Building Code. In other words, a building that will be considered safe, according to fire regulations, to be used as a theatre space.
Permitting this usage has led to tension. Other user groups have expressed concern Beaubien is trying to turn the hall into a theatre like Mount Tabor.
“It’s about possession of the hall. User groups that are currently using [the hall] feel threatened by newcomers,” says Beaubien. “Any new style of events, anything new. They feel threatened, and they want to block anything like that. It’s as simple as that.”
In fact, modifying a building to bring it to an A1 classification would not change its use at all, says Branscombe. Because of the floor space taken up by a stage, the use of lighting and potentially flammable sets, fire safety regulation is more stringent, but that doesn’t affect the usage.
“There’s more life safety features put in place as an A1 than there is as an A2 [public gathering space]. So you use it once, it’s an A1. But you use it tomorrow for a town hall meeting, now it’s an A2. But you have to have the A1 mechanisms in there for the life safety features because it’s being used for that,” he explains. “If they want to have their strawberry socials, or they want to have their butter tart day, they can still do that. But the building is classified as an A1 because it covers all the other life safety features for that theatrical [function].”
“Just because it meets the A1 requirements, doesn’t mean that’s the only function that hall can do,” clarifies fire Chief Scott Manlow.
Beaubien brought Hillier-area residents Pearl Hucul, a former teacher, and Bill McMahon, past-president of Prince Edward Community Theatre to speak to council last Thursday as an appeal to invest in those improvements. The three are part of a newly formed group called Friends of Hillier Hall, interested in expanding the use of the space.
Hucul argued that with no access to performance space in the County’s west end, young people growing up west of Wellington were losing out on opportunities to be involved.
“The one problem with Wellington and Hillier is that we don’t have a performance space,” Hucul told council. “Many children in the area don’t have the opportunity to get involved in dramatic activities or even musical activities because both parents are working, they can’t get out. Music and performance was very important for my children. I would like to see that for everyone.”
McMahon spoke about value to the community surrounding Hillier.
“My experience in fundraising has taught me that sponsors prefer to support projects that directly impact the region they serve,” McMahon told council. “Based on travel distances alone, especially in the unpredictable winter months, wherever you live, local access is a benefit and support on its own.”
Beaubien completed the appeal to council, discussing what his group hopes to achieve and clarifying a misconception that has dogged the hall’s usage as a performance venue.
“I want to qualify this. We’re not looking for a full-time theatre. We’re simply looking for events, rehearsals. Equipment is taken down. The hall continues on its use—as it always has— general purpose,” Conrad explained.
It is an expensive venture. The total cost of retrofitting is $20,000.
Ameliasburgh councillor Roy Pennell asked Beaubien if he understood that went beyond what the County was expected to pay for.
“Are you aware that the mandate of the municipality is to provide the building, provide the hydro and everything to run it, and normally, a lot of extra stuff, you would be looking at some sort of fundraising to do it?” Pennell asked.
Beaubien told council some of that retrofitting has already happened, and that he was willing to help fundraise the rest.
He hopes to be able to use the hall again as a performance space in November, to recognize the 100-year anniversary of Vimy Ridge with a play written and produced by local playwright Suzanne Pasternak.
Council agreed to support the retrofitting, upon the condition that Beaubien would contribute some of the cost, and that it could wait until the new year to be added to the County’s budget.
Ameliasburgh councillor Dianne O’Brien worried about an issue that runs deeper than fire codes and budgets. She alluded to the same tension Beaubien did.
“Although I very much support the Hillier Town Hall theatre… I have a major concern about the Friends of Hillier Town Hall versus the Hillier Recreation Committee, which includes such groups as the Women’s Institute. I think they’re at odds, and I’d really like to see a better line of communication between these two groups. I’m hesitant to support either group at this time. I would really like to see the Friends and the Recreation Committee come together and agree on the use of this hall.”