Helping the hall
Conrad Beaubien asks council to support Hillier Hall
The hamlet of Hillier is far from the centre of Prince Edward County, but it is the epicentre of the County’s many wineries, home to beautiful marshland and a fascinating diversity of residents including a chef, a heritage designer, a retired television writer and a circus producer.
At the heart of the hamlet is Hillier Hall, a meeting place that was built 150 years ago.
The hall has at times been a place for congregations without churches to meet, a municipal office and a schoolhouse. Older members of the community in Hillier can still recall going to school there, remember the Christmas pageants and the dances.
When the County became an amalgamated municipality, Hillier Hall—along with town halls across the County—was established as a centre of culture and recreation. A public gathering place. The halls have been home to strawberry socials, dinners, community meetings and parties for years.
It’s a place Conrad Beaubien has long championed. The Hall’s neighbour has sat for over a decade on the Hillier recreation committee (HRC) and took part in the creation of the Station Road Arts Collective, a loose-knit group of artists who share ideas, equipment and profit in order to bring more art to the County’s west end.
In 2014, when dire repairs to the hall’s ceiling called for an emergency closure, the HRC brought a proposal to council. An additional $6,000 raised by the community would be added to the County’s cost in repairing the ceiling and a leak in the roof. Along with removing a drop ceiling and restoring the hall’s original vaulted ceiling, the money donated by the HRC would allow for the installation of electrical outlets in the ceiling, a cross-bar configuration to allow for hanging lights and hooks for, among other things, training with hoops and silks for Zero Gravity Circus, whose owners had recently moved to Hillier.
Engineer Ernie Margetson, who specializes in heritage buildings, volunteered his time and expertise to create drawings showing how such a proposal would work. The extra features were approved by council in early 2015.
A year later, once the hall was back in working order, Beaubien opened his second play, a dinner-theatre production called Bridge Street, at the hall. Shortly before the play opened, a letter from municipal staff informed Beaubien theatre was not an allowable use unless changes were made to the hall itself that would upgrade its fire code designation.
Last week, Beaubien spoke to council about the hall, asking for support and attempting to clear up misconceptions.
“What we are asking of council is to support us in our vision. Help us find a way for expedient open-dialogue with staff so that we can work closer hand-in-hand,” Beaubien told council. “We never come to the table empty-handed. What we’re doing it asking how we can participate. Let us come together as a group to finish this.”
Council was full of questions. Hallowell councillor Gord Fox wondered if the hall wanted money. Beaubien said that as a municipally-owned community hub, the hall needed financial support the same way any hall in the County does.
Ameliasburgh councillor Roy Pennell wondered about the Hillier firehall, a property Beaubien had earlier lobbied to take over for the creation of a multi-disciplinary arts space. Beaubien reminded council that was a separate issue.
“There is a committee formed called the West End Junction,” said Beaubien, explaining that some money has gone into creating architectural drawings, which have been submitted to the County’s economic development office, but as of yet there has been no response regarding approval. “The firehall offers a far extend version of what I’m speaking about today. The two can go hand in hand. The firehall is a vision for the long term to be held in collective private hands.”
Pennell did get assurance from Beaubien that he was supporting the hall as remaining a mixed-use space, and not to be turned into a theatre like the one at Mount Tabor.
Ameliasburgh councillor Dianne O’Brien wanted to know if Beaubien has the support of the HRC. He confirmed that support for projects in the hall have been ongoing. He is currently HRC chair.
Picton councillor Lenny Epstein wondered why any changes would have to be made to the hall to allow a feature the hall has long been used for.
“What I’m not fully clear about it that, as you say, there have been theatre productions happening at Hillier Hall since its beginnings and it is a multi-use space,” Epstein said. “How come there would need to be additional capital changes in order to have occasional theatre productions which are just a part of the general use?”
For Beaubien, that was a difficult question to answer.
“I’m not quite clear on it. What we have is a general use public building, wanting to use it for pop-up theatre. We simply wanted to expand the use,” he said.
Sophiasburgh councillor Kevin Gale worried upgrades to the hall would be seen as favouring one group over another.
“No per capita funds can go towards additions,” Beaubien clarified. “This is universal. This is to benefit the community at large to give us more tools.”
The questions continued to flow. Gale worried about money, as did Hallowell councillor Brad Nieman. Sophiasburgh councillor Bill Roberts wondered how an investment in Hillier Hall would translate in growth and entrepreneurship in the County’s west.
Beaubien said bringing more arts-based programming and opportunities to a place like Hillier will draw youth. And that, he explained, is what the County needs.
“I think the key thing here is that as the hall has evolved, it’s organically taken shape to address the different needs of a society. We’re in a society in which demand comes from the youth. The youth are looking for opportunities. Performing… cooking classes… those are some of the things that can happen,” he told council. “If we can’t bring youth in and don’t have the services to be able to entice them to be involved, we have a very limited future.”
Retired teacher and creator of the County’s Musical Instrument Lending Library Don Hynde concurred.
“In our society, young people need this. They crave it. We’ve got to get it,” Hynde told council in a comment. “I have 30 private students who I have asked and volunteered to help out with Hillier Hall and music instruction for children who could not get it, at no cost. I want to support every one of these things in the County. I believe this is a must for our kids.”
A report from staff with a budget for upgrades to the hall will come to the next committee of council in July.