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STW Wants Disabled In House

By Brian Kelly, Sault Star
Thursday, June 20, 2013 12:14:56 EDT PM

Calling it a “moral issue,” the president of Sault Ste. Marie’s oldest theatre group wants to make the Bayview venue accessible to the disabled or move to a new location that is.

However, a member of Sault Ste. Marie’s Accessibility Committee is concerned Chris Horsepool is not budgeting enough cash for his planned renovations.

He wants an upstairs washroom and lift or ramp added to a side door at the Studio Theatre on Pittsburg Avenue. Horsepool work would cost $8,000 to $12,000.

“We’re looking right now at a moral issue of making it handicapped accessible for the friends of the theatre that just can’t come to see a show,” said Horsepool following the group’s annual general meeting on Monday.

“It’s a moral issue for us right now and not a legal issue. Our quandry is really whether or not we spend the money on the building that we have now or look for another building that is handicap accessible.”

Theatre-goers have to climb a set of stairs to enter the building. Washrooms are in the basement.

STW, launched in 1948, purchased the former church hall for $30,000 in 1998. The building is about 80 years old.

Ontario Trillium Foundation turned down several funding requests to pay for renovations needed to make the building accessible, said Horsepool.

“It’s on us to do it,” he said. STW would have to fundraise to get the cash to do the work. The group has about $12,000, but can only tap some of that money for repairs. A typical show costs about $7,000 to mount. STW opens its 65th season with Syliva in mid-October.

Horsepool wants his executive board “to make a decision on which way to go” this fall. He had hoped a verdict would have been reached during the past year.

“This past season I found it difficult to get all the members on the same page to say, ‘Yes, we’ll do this or do that,’” he said.

“Once we make a decision on what road to go down then it’s easier to make a decision on what exactly to do.”

Horsepool expects the earliest renovations could be made to Studio Theatre would be in the late fall before the Christmas production of Game Show. That production opens Dec. 4 and runs for two weeks.

Ann Marie McPhee, site plan subcommittee chair of SSMAC, anticipates improvements to the former church hall “would be a very costly undertaking.”

“It is the right thing to do, but you wonder if it’s worth investing in an old building like that?” said the retired nurse who worked at General Hospital.

If asked, she’d check everything from the width of the theatre’s main doors for wheelchair entry to seating accommodations.

Her group has not heard any complaints from disabled residents about the theatre. She joined the committee when it was formed about a decade ago.

“But I think probably it’s because nobody ever thinks that they could ever get in it,” said McPhee.

“How would they get in it? It was always an impossibility right from the get-go.”

About 14% of Ontario residents have a disability with more than half experiencing mobility problems. The Sault population has more disabled people than the provincial average because of more older residents, says city accessibility co-ordinator Nancie Scott.

It would cost about $250,000 to make Studio Theatre completely accessible with an elevator, said box office manager and grant facilitator Sandra Houston. A lift would likely be more affordable for the group.

“We’ve been wanting to do this for years,” she said.

A possible move to a new building would be prompted by other factors including increasing the audience capacity from 131 and technical challenges that dog productions at Studio Theatre.

Lighting is “not great” behind the stage’s proscenium, said Horsepool. Sound quality falters at the rear of the house. The stage ceiling is too low.

“It’s difficult on this stage to bring the performance to the audience,” said Horsepool.

“That’s why everyone wants to use the front. Everyone that does a show starts to put wings on the side to bring the show into the audience. A different space would be nice.”

A move to presenting plays in a gymnasium, while “not an ideal theatre,” offers the benefits of no proscenium and a higher ceiling. Lighting would be better, but sound improvements would have to be made.

“There is money to spend even if we get a building,” said Horsepool.

He has set a maximum purchase price of $250,000 for a new home – likely an old elementary school.

“I don’t think we as a group could commit to spend more than that,” he said.

“It’s too much of a risk for us to borrow $500,000 and then try and pay it back. I believe it’s too much of a risk for a group our size.”

Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board expects to list the former St. Hubert elementary school for public sale in July.

The Dacey Road school was closed after it consolidated with the new Holy Family on Texas Avenue.

Algoma District School Board, Algoma University, Sault College and the provincial and federal governments have first chance to buy the property. That 90-day window began in late March, said superintendent of business Chris Spina.

“We’ve had nothing yet,” he said of interest from those groups.

An assessment still has to be done to set the school’s sale price. It must be sold for fair market value.

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