Burns Wharf Players reluctant about change to incorporated body

The Burns Wharf Theatre Players, The Sorcerer in early 2017. In this scene: with the aid of the town sorcerer (Peter Baumgarten) Alexis (Patrick Therrien) hatches a plan to create a potion that will see the whole village fall in love “with the first person they meet who has also tasted it.” Aline (Rachel Gulyas) is not convinced. 

MANITOWANING—A large contingent of Burns Wharf Theatre Players (BWTP) and their friends attended the November 21 meeting of Assiginack council to again plead their case as to why saving the Burns Wharf Theatre should mean something to this council and community.

Peter Baumgarten spoke on behalf of the group, beginning by noting a couple of the BWTP’s concerns: the denial by the municipality of placing a funding application forward on their behalf and council’s suggestion that the Players become incorporated to allow them to apply for funding on their own.

Mr. Baumgarten said that the BWTP has prided themselves on the support of council since the beginning, “a positive relationship” they would like to see moving forward.

In 2008, the BWTP’s first production after a long hiatus, the group approached council to ask for a $1,000 donation to be used toward start-up fees. Mr. Baumgarten explained that this is the only time the Players have approached council for a hand out. Instead they have contributed almost $14,000 to the municipality through a portion of ticket sales from 2008 to 2013—almost $3,000 each year. The Players, he added, also reached out to local restaurants and church groups during the shows’ runs, encouraging them to put on events or specials to create a theatre package that only sought to benefit the people of Manitowaning.

Mr. Baumgarten also spoke to the community inclusion that each play brings, seeing actors varying in age from 5 to 90 involved in the plays.

“We have 1,000 audience members every season, even people who schedule vacations specifically for these shows,” he said.

He also reminded council that the BWTP helped to pay for a new roof and a brand-new lighting system, which was only used once season. “Structurally, the building is sound,” he added, “it’s all about the building codes.”

“We feel we’re being compared to the Steamship Society,” Mr. Baumgarten said. “We find that a very unfair comparison. We’re nothing like them except that we’re both an historical asset and our theatre is located a stone’s throw from the Norisle.”

With the completion of the required building code improvements to the Burns Wharf Theatre building, it will mean an asset for the municipality for decades to come, he said.

The BWTP make enough money each year to keep them going and has no money sunk into the Burns Wharf, unlike the Steamship Society that has, reportedly, over one million sunk into the aging ship so far, he added. “We’re nothing like the Norisle and to compare us to the Norisle is unfair,” he reiterated.

Mr. Baumgarten reminded council that at one time, repairs to the Burns Wharf Theatre were a priority for council and while that may have changed, there is no reason they can’t apply for grants on the Players’ behalf and make them a funding priority. He also reminded mayor and council that for the people of Assiginack, the restoration of Burns Wharf is a priority, according to a strategic planning survey undertaken by the municipality.

“We’re asking for the township’s assistance, and not even a lot of it,” he said.

Mr. Baumgarten said that the Players do not mind doing the “legwork” for funding applications, as long as municipal staff and council will provide feedback on those applications in order to get them back in the Burns Wharf.

As for incorporation, “it’s not a simple process, and it’s a costly one,” Mr. Baumgarten continued, listing the many items a group must do to become incorporated.

“If incorporation is the only way forward, I’m not sure what will happen to our group,” he admitted.

“We’re not like Friends of the Norisle, we’re not like Manitoulin Streams, we’re a social group,” Mr. Baumgarten continued. “If anything, we’re more like minor hockey than any of the other groups.”

He pointed to the fact that some members of council feel that the Players don’t need a dedicated space as they can continue to use Debajehmujig’s black box theatre, as they have done for the past two summers. “Debaj has been accommodating, but they’ve already given us signals that this arrangement isn’t going to last,” Mr. Baumgarten said.

And as for the Assiginack Public School gym, it’s not conducive to a theatre group.

“We need to get back into the Burns Wharf building and we hope to do so without being incorporated,” he again stated.

Mayor Paul Moffatt said the reasons stated for not incorporating don’t hold any weight, noting that it doesn’t take much time and it’s not expensive.

“If you were incorporated, then the municipality could give that venue to you then you could raise all the money,” the mayor said.

“I fail to see why the township wants to download the building from your plate on to ours,” Mr. Baumgarten replied. “There are not a lot of assets in this community. If we don’t feel we can incorporate, it could be another thing gone from this township.”

“I fail to see why you think it’s so difficult to incorporate,” Mayor Moffatt reiterated.

“We still don’t understand why we should be incorporate,” Marilyn Wohlberg, BWTP artistic director, interjected. “Why is this absolutely necessary?” she questioned, asking if this was a direction from the municipal lawyer due to their other legal problems regarding township assets of late. “You must have a reason for insisting on this?”

“If and when your organization becomes incorporated, we can transfer that venue to you,” the mayor repeated.

“Why is the township not taking responsibility for the building?” Mr. Baumgarten queried. “We’re not hearing an answer as to why.”

“We don’t’ really want the building,” Ms. Wohlberg added.

“If you are an incorporated body we can enter an agreement with you,” CAO Alton Hobbs responded. “We’re involved in a number of issues currently. Our solicitor suggested that if you want to go down that route, then a logical way through this is incorporation, then lease.”

“What you’re saying is that you’re not willing to work with us,” Mr. Baumgarten said. “We’re not asking staff to search for the money, financial or manpower resources, just cooperation.”

“You’re saying that because a lawyer said that because you’re in hot water with one group you can’t help another, then I’m concerned with how this municipality is running,” he added.

“I believe council sees this as a business decision and therefore we should develop a business relationship,” said Councillor Leslie Fields who went on to cite poor plumbing and sewer in the theatre building as it now stands.

Ms. Wohlberg said that the building’s issues are the township’s and not the Players.

“You have to realize that we’re struggling financially,” Councillor Fields said. “That building could have more and more issues. You may not ask for money now, but eventually you will.”

Councillor Hugh Moggy said he personally wished to see the funding application go through for the BWTP.

“I don’t want this to become adversarial,” Mr. Baumgarten said. “We feel that the building has value to the community and we will keep fighting.”

“There is absolutely no way we can see ourselves going through six months plus the cost (of incorporation) only to find the lease is something we can’t work with,” he continued. “We would need to see the specifics of that lease.”

“We’ve been leading these people on for the past two years,” Councillor Moggy said.

The mayor told Councillor Moggy he thought his comment was “out of order.”

Councillor Moggy responded that he didn’t think he was, noting that when the budget was set, there was money in the working funds reserve so that if the FedNor grant (that was not applied for in the end) had been approved, they would have the municipal contribution there. “Why are we as a municipality not working to help these people to see if there is funding?”

Councillor Brenda Reid said the problem, as she saw it, is that the funding application could be better used on a new fire hall, public works garage or ice plant, for example.

“It’s (Burns Wharf) an asset for the community and if there are no people coming here you’re going to be paying a heck of a lot more in taxes,” Councillor Moggy said. “It’s not just the BWTP that can use that building.”

Mr. Baumgarten reminded council of the summer concert series and the municipal-run youth theatre camp that was also housed at the Burns Wharf, with Ms. Wohlberg noting that she could bring the camp back again.

Ms. Wohlberg pointed to the many projects undertaken by the municipality recently, like the beautification of the beach, the seniors’ park and the amphitheatre and encouraged them to have “courage and faith” in the Burns Wharf project.

The mayor wished them the same back and encouraged the Players to “not lose their vision.”

An emotional Ms. Wohlberg cited “roadblocks at every turn” by council.

“No one at this table has ever wanted the Burns Wharf (Theatre Players) to not do well,” Mayor Moffatt said.

“The goal posts are shifting,” Mr. Baumgarten said. “You say there’s support, but we’re not feeling it.”

Mayor Moffatt reminded the Players that much has shifted over the last four years, alluding to the ever-increasing municipal download by the province, pointing to a multi-million-dollar revamp of the municipality’s water system that must be undertaken in the next few years.

The delegation from BWTP ended with assurances that the two parties would sit down to work on a lease proposal.