Centre of the arts

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Nearly-finished downtown arts hub is over six years in the making

John Cameron
Editor-in-Chief

“Feel how cold it is in here?” Marian Donnelly asked, hugging herself. She was wearing a sweater and a down vest; I was wearing a long pea coat and a scarf. “The reason why is just, like, cause it’s a brick wall, right? The wall is cold.”

She stepped onto the stage on the eastern side of the room and touched the wall. I followed her up and put my hand on the wall too, craning my neck slightly to peek out the third-floor window overlooking the back alley that runs parallel to Hamilton Street. If the walls are as thin as Donnelly says they are, then there’s at least one upside – in my mind, I could picture an early evening downtown, approaching the building, hearing music drift across darkened downtown Regina.

“I mean, there’s not much I can do about that,” she continued, pulling her hand away from the wall and stepping towards the refinished solid wood doorframe in the room’s southeast corner. “If we had gone the road of putting up two-by-fours and insulation and drywall and all that stuff … we’d be messing with our trim.”

She gestured towards the door, indicating the work that had gone into restoring the original woodwork. Her face was pensive – I could see she’s weighed the pros and cons of the project and decided that what matters the most is keeping as much of the space intact as possible.

Donnelly was taking me through the site of the future Creative City Centre, a workspace for artists that’s been in development for years and is beginning to enter its final stages of renovation. She’s the CEO of Inner Circle Management, an arts consulting agency that has worked with groups ranging from FadaDance to the Globe Theatre. The Creative City Centre is her brainchild, as is the Regina Arts & Business Network, an organization devoted to bridging Regina’s creative and commercial communities through workshops and other educational events.

Both projects have been in the works for a long time. In 2004, Donnelly attended a conference in Toronto, the Creative Spaces and Places conference, which brought together people from across the globe in order to look at ways of revitalizing downtown areas. It was here that she got her idea for how to rejuvenate Regina’s flagging downtown area.

“What they do in all these cities where they’ve had success is they’ve taken a building and converted it into a place for artists to live and work,” she explained. “It’s sometimes called the ‘SoHo effect,’ because the first time it happened was in the SoHo district in New York – a bunch of artists moved into this area, where it was all empty buildings and whatever, and now it’s one of the high-rent areas.”

Donnelly first started looking in downtown Regina for a space to renovate in 2005, and the Loggie’s Shoes building wasn’t even the first building to get her attention. The first time she was introduced to the unoccupied, debris-filled former apartment building that she’s now busy clearing out and renovating, she was already in the process of putting together plans for both the Legion building downtown and the Leader building next door to Loggie’s. It was only after those plans fell through in early 2009 that she started looking seriously at Loggie’s and discovered it fit her needs perfectly.

“When I walked up the stairs for the first time, I thought this would be a fantastic place for like a fashion designer … it was always, ‘This space is the fashion design space.’ And then when I saw the third floor, I mean, as soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘These are perfect artist studio spaces, right? These are absolutely perfect artist studio spaces.’ And then when you see the big room, it was like, ‘And this is a fantastic little performance space,’” Donnelly grinned. “You know? There was no way around it … The building told us what to do. The building told us what this space is going to be.”

Her knowledge of the building – both its past and its future – are intricate enough to suggest that she might have more to do with the process than she’d admit to.

A room that used to function as an office, sans electricity: Donnelly laughed and said she could picture a man sitting at a desk in this room while chomping a cigar and turning the crank on an old adding machine, then described the room’s future as a place for designers from the fashion design collective that will likely occupy this floor to store grad dresses and other items which don’t see regular rotation on the shelves.

A large, empty storeroom, with patchwork carpets and boxes full of beer empties: Donnelly described the way the room used to be filled with wooden shelving, before discussing how the space had been until very recently rented out to bands and then outlining the ways the fashion design collective will set up the room as a production space.

A third-floor apartment: Donnelly showed me how the room used to be connected to another apartment via a shared bathroom, and then explained the different ways all three rooms would be used by independent working artists.

Though planning the space has been natural and comparatively easy, the process of actually restoring the space above Loggie’s has been a bit more difficult. Securing funding from government sources in the initial stages of building was next to impossible, and while government arts and development agencies at both the federal and provincial level have agreed to help – like the Information Services Corporation, which has sponsored the development of the Creative City Centre and the Regina Arts & Business Network’s websites – most aren’t equipped to sponsor capital projects.

Instead, Donnelly’s had to find the money elsewhere. So far, that’s turned out well – between a solid core base of volunteers, a supportive business community that has assisted her with reduced equipment rental costs, a deal with the building’s owners that sees every dollar in renovations matched by free rent, and a group of lenders who have had the patience to see the project through, she’s received an extraordinary amount of help from the community.

To match their commitment, she’s spent an equally extraordinary amount of time and energy actually working on the project, spending evenings and weekends working with volunteers to renovate the old rooms.

And that’s been a lot of work. On the wall in the large second-floor lobby – the future retail site for the fashion collective – there was a checklist of renovation needs posted in February of last year that had been fully marked up. There’s much work to still be done, but the work that has been done has brought the building from being a theoretical space in a 2005 feasibility study to a space that already has prospective tenants.

“All of July, August, September, October – I was just here, twelve hours a day, just working on the space. That’s pretty much all I’ve been doing,” she explained, before  starting to laugh. “It’s totally been a labour of love, and I’m looking forward to loving it more when it’s done.”

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