Khyber building plan goes to council tonight

Khyber and city staff want to see 1588 Barrington as an arts centre—will council?

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At tonight's city council meeting, HRM staff will present the staff report "1588 Barrington Street as an Arts & Culture Incubator." This, of course, is the recommendation from staff to council to continue using, and to expand the cultural services offered in the Khyber building, which is seen as a big part of the Barrington revitalization plan. Historic stuff, kiddies. Well, yes and no.

Issues surrounding the building, its management and occupancy have been looming since I started at The Coast, over six years ago. Graffiti, taxes, overwhelmed staff, physical repairs, empty spaces—there's a long history of conflict between the Khyber Arts Society board and staff and the city. So last week's panic over some of the language in the report isn't a surprise.

The Khyber board received the report last Friday at the end of the day (of a long weekend), which gave them no time to prepare their own presentation for a Tuesday council session. "We were expecting it earlier," Khyber director Dan Joyce told me last week, "but the length of time kept shrinking and shrinking." Concerned, board member Garry Neill Kennedy approached councillor Dawn Sloane and asked for a postponement to this week, which probably would have happened anyway, but it gave a chance for the Khyber and the city to meet to clear up some issues. "We want clarity," said Joyce, in that conversation. "We're not looking to argue."

While everyone wants the same thing—a fully functional arts centre—the biggest issue that the Khyber saw in the report was a duplication of services. From page 16: "The proposed Operating Strategy recommends retaining a third of the leasable space, or about 1,776ft , for HRM’s own cultural programs, such as artists studios, exhibit space and a reception desk." If a third of the space was programmed by the city, did that mean that KAS, who had been programming the space for years, would eventually be squeezed out?

On Friday I spoke to Christine Lavoie, team lead, HRM Culture and Heritage Development, about the role of the report. "The purpose of the report is to inform council what is happening with that specific property, but also to inform them of the gap we are experiencing, which is the need for an incubator-type space. So first council will be looking to identify if that's their priority. And if that's the case how will we proceed."

According to Lavoie, talk of programming is premature—right now it's up to council to pass the recommendation.

"There are no plans. This is just the first step on trying and get the support for this type of space. And once that's done, if it gets done, then we'll be able to work with the community to program that space. And by the community I mean as well, the Khyber Arts Society, of course."

Earlier on Friday, KAS board members Garry Kennedy, Colleen Wolstenholme and Wallace Brannen met with Dawn Sloane and HRM staffers Andrew Whittemore and Jamie MacLellan. Lavoie and Joyce both say that the meeting went well, and that the outcome was fairly positive. Nothing will happen anyway, unless council approves tonight. This should be interesting. In fact, I am working on a little drinking game that involves certain councillors' reactions... Although Lavoie says that community cultural space planned for the new Halifax Central Library is a completely different type of arts space, and she's totally right, I wonder if some of the councillors will understand the difference. The support for the Khyber building will most likely come down to whether enough of them see it as strategic for Barrington.

Although it's way too early to throw the confetti, here is the Khyber's vision for the space:
-to rent the first floor to a private business like Just Us cafe (the two have had very early discussions about the potential partnership). HRM would collect a market rent and allow Just US/KAS to program daily music/readings/lectures.
-the second floor would continue to be used for arts programming and special events.
-re-start a 80-90 seat indie cinema on the third floor, like the old Wormwood. Right now, the Carbon Arc film series is happening on the second floor.

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