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Feature - Keeping the faith

After a year in operation Millennium Place is still a mystery to much of the community

Maurice Young Millennium Place and those who run it are on a mission.

They want to "challenge, engage and stimulate (the) community to explore (its) imagination and to develop (its) creativity, spiritual and intellectual awareness."

But unless you know someone who knows someone at MY Place its unlikely you would know about its mission and even less likely you would know how it will be achieved.

"I know it's a theatre and a church," said one local who didn't want to give her name because she was embarrassed not to more about the $7.4 million project which opened its doors to the public just over a year ago.

"And it has a daycare centre, but just for the kids of those who go to the church, right?" she asked.

Wrong.

It's for everyone, although it focuses on the locals.

"I know I should know more, especially since the muni paid it for," the local added as she started to walk away on a mission of her own: to find out more about Millennium Place.

One of the first things she would have found out was that the Resort Municipality of Whistler did not pay for MY Place.

Volunteers, people committed to bringing art, culture and spirituality to Whistler, have worked tirelessly for years to raise $5.4 million, making this the largest capital project by far for the resort. They still need to raise about $2 million.

While council supports MY Place its only financial contributions have been grants in aid totalling $450,000 to cover municipal development cost charges and interim funding.

The municipality has also guaranteed the $3.5 million short-term mortgage the Whistler Skiers Chapel Society sought and received to finish the project after fundraising stalled due to the global recession and the after effects of the terrorist attacks on the US last September.

The municipality does not pay the mortgage. It will be paid off by the Chapel Society using donated money in million-dollar instalments over the next two years. The first payment is due in April 2003.

The Chapel Society owns the building and leases it to Millennium Place.

The group developing the BC Rail lands has promised the society $1 million from an organization it started, The Scotia Creek Foundation. The foundation was started to raise money in the resort.

"What I am trying to do is not have dependency on the municipality," said Mayor Hugh O'Reilly, a key fundraiser for the project and frequent attendee at events in the centre.

"To think that we have raised five-and-a-half million dollars is very significant and I think everyone who has contributed should be congratulated.

"Our goal is to finish the project as quickly as possible. The building is achieving higher utilization every day and we are starting to see the right products coming in."

Last July there were 46 events booked. This May there were 114 events at MY Place.

In the worst case scenario fundraising would fail and the municipality would be on the hook for the mortgage. In essence the resort would get a project valued conservatively at $7.4 million for $3.5 million.

"That is a default position," said O'Reilly.

"But I am confident that we will be able to raise the remaining funds.

"It was built by the community and we are a partner in the community. but it isn't our intent to run the building."

It's also likely that if fundraising ran into problems the bank would extend the loan.

Ted Milner, councilor and MY Place board member, believes municipal support in the past and in the future is positive.

"I think there will always be an element of support," he said referring to financial support of the centre.

"I don't see that we are going to run a commercial operation that is going to hammer in revenues.

"We would rather work with the community to do the things that they like but also keep it affordable."

Making the centre accessible to the community is a key operating strategy. It lies at the very core of how Millennium Place came to be.

It all started a dozen or so years ago when the Whistler Skiers Chapel Society decided to build a new church. They failed because they could not raise enough money.

But the idea never died and in the late 1990s it was resurrected, but with a twist. The building would not just be an interfaith, multi-denominational chapel, it would be a gathering place for the whole community to explore other activities such as arts, culture and music.

In 1997 the society announced it had a $3 million goal for fundraising for the building, which would be constructed on donated land next to the municipal hall on Blackcomb Way.

By 1998 the price tag had shot up to $5.8 million as the idea caught fire in the community and people began to expand their wish list for the facility.

Construction work began April 24, 2000 and the goal was to have the centre open in time for Christmas 2000. It opened June 17, 2001.

There were no particular cost overruns with the project. It simply took longer and cost more as it morphed to try and become all things to all people.

Now included were a dark room, a recording control studio and adjacent music rooms, multi purpose rooms, meeting rooms, a youth centre, a daycare facility and of course the 200-seat Wilhelmsen Hall, which hosts both religious services and stage productions.

Of course it is also home to Whistler Village Church in which three denominations, Anglican, Evangelical Lutheran and United, all worship together.

"I think it is the first time there has been a sense of the spiritual and the whole healthy community notion, said chair of the Chapel Society Harlene Walker, adding that up to 80 people attend Sunday service now as compared to about 15 when services were held in the high school.

"This personifies healthy communities. It looks after body, mind and spirit."

Walker accepts that it is unusual for a church to also be a community centre but she said: "I am comfortable with the building that we have and the way we use it."

The church does not pay to use the facilities.

The Jewish community also hosts programs at MY Place, including services and cultural events.

By the time the final tally sheets were in the building cost $6.1 million. It cost $500,000 to furnish it, another $500,000 to open it and run it for the first year. The capital campaign cost $350,000.

"The opening ceremonies and the entertainment cost us about $100,000," said chair of Millennium Place's board Stephen Milstein.

"People might say, 'why spend that when you were in debt.' But look, if we are having trouble now getting the story out what would have happened if we didn't do that?"

Milstein is devoted to the building and the ideas it represents. While some have criticized his controlling management style no one can question his commitment, which includes volunteering thousands of hours to make the dream come true.

Whenever he can he tells people about the centre, a place he hopes will become a meeting place for new moms, seniors, youths, anyone who has some time to kill in the village and wants to catch up with what is going on in the community and with each other.

Despite this positive image Millennium Place seems to some like an albatross for the community.

"A lot of people have no idea what this place is about," said Milstein.

"Whenever it comes up all they hear is the word mortgage and everybody thinks the worst will happen and the taxpayer will pay.

"You know how many people have said to us in any other community the municipality would have had to pay for this? So when I look at it, and people say, 'oh look what this cost,'. I say look how much money you have saved."

While no one wanted to be quoted it is also obvious that rifts remain in the community because the MY Place campaign came from behind, overtook the new library/museum project and the library's hope to also be a millennium venture.

And now the two projects are fundraising at the same time.

On the record most say raising money for both isn't an issue.

"I think they are both very deserving projects," said Mayor O'Reilly.

"And I think people will support the one that means the most to them and I think there are enough people in Whistler that we can probably take care of both."

Anne Fenwick, chair of the library's capital campaign steering committee, reiterated the point.

"There are always a couple of different campaigns going on," she said.

"We are comfortable we can raise the money. We just have to find our market."

Off the record many admit it will be an on-going challenge.

Millennium Place has now hired a professional fundraiser part-time and is launching initiatives to get the dollars flowing again.

There is a seat sale. If you donate $750 you can place a memorial plaque on one of the chairs in Wilhelmsen Hall.

And some are supporting the use of a complicated annuity scheme to raise money.

While the annuity program is used by organizations such as the Vancouver Opera, many have concerns about it, not the least of which is that if things go wrong the only way for the scheme to be cancelled is for the policy holder - the donor - to die.

There is also a new fundraising venture in the resort, Friends of Whistler USA. This organization will make it possible for US citizens to donate to the organization, and get a tax receipt. The organization will use the money to support causes in the resort.

Milstein and others are hoping these fundraising ventures will keep Millennium Place in the black as it works to find its niche in the community.

This year the centre brought in $157,000 from leasing space and $60,000 from the rental of Wilhelmsen Hall.

It spent $57,000 on production related expenses, $77,000 on the upkeep of the building and $350,000 on administrative overheads.

The deficit was planned for and covered by the operating budget for the first year.

"We have provided for the first year and we believe that our fundraising efforts will cover any losses in the second or third year," said Milstein.

"How long will it take to break even? I firmly believe that in three to five years without fundraising this can pay its way."

While some have criticized the failure of Millennium Place to break-even Milstein defends its current financial position.

"We are not a business," he said.

"We are trying to operate in a professional manner but the bottom line is we are a community centre even though the government didn't pay for it.

"There doesn't need to be an expectation of making money but there needs to be an expectation of fiscal responsibility. We can't be in a position of going to the government and saying, 'oh no. Look what's happened. We are in financial trouble.'

"And in fact that is where some of the nervousness comes from in the community. It is that, 'how are you going to keep paying for this?' question that some focus on."

How it will be paid for is an on-going issue. They money won't just come from fundraising it will also come from use of the facilities.

Currently the facility rents on three scales, offering two community rates and rates for out-of-town professional groups. It can cost as little as $35 per hour to rent a multi-purpose room and as much as $1,500 to rent Wilhemsen Hall for the day.

In the past year there have been flops, mostly performances by unknown emerging music artists. But there have also been big successes like the Whistler Players' production of Cinderella, which sold out every performance.

It appears that people are hungry for avant-garde films, theatre and performances by well known musicians or musicians who would not normally appear at some of the venues around town people are used to frequenting for entertainment.

The theatre has also been used for Scottish country dancing competitions and performances and conferences.

The multi-purpose room is becoming popular. Among other things it is used for yoga, a children's creative art and music program, and a municipally-supported teen centre.

"I think it provides a fantastic opportunity for local youth," said Greg McDonnell, community outreach worker with Whistler Community Services Society and a board member with Millennium Place.

"They are running awesome programs."

McDonnell was thrilled to see a tutor program put in place as final exams came around at the high school.

"There were tons of youth," he said.

"It's not like the youth don't still hang out at the skateboard park but it's a fantastic safe place, almost like a refuge and it has quality programming."

Youth are slowly finding their way there as word of mouth spreads the news.

But even those who rent space have found misconceptions about the centre.

"Sometimes people are confused about what it is," said Connie Oliwa, owner of Alpine Yoga.

"People just feel that it is a church or others feel that it is more of a hosting facility. I don't think they are aware yet of all the multifunctions the facility can provide.

"I think that however we can do that, get the word out that it is available for lots of different services, the better because it is absolutely fantastic."

Oliwa said without Millennium Place it is unlikely her plans to open a yoga business last winter would have happened.

She wanted to be in the village but the space was too expensive. Renting space in MY Place allows her business to make a profit and offer affordable fitness.

Nancy Powell is still working on the profit equation. She moved to Whistler a couple of years ago with her family. Disappointed to find a dearth of cultural programs in the community for kids she decided to start a program herself. This has entailed buying thousands of dollars worth of music and art equipment and hiring music and art teachers. More interested in providing her two girls with stimulation than making money, she offers a very affordable program at MY Place.

"This is the kind of program that you don't do to make money," she said, adding wistfully it would be nice to at least break even.

"You do this because you want your kids to have access to music and art and because it is a wonderful thing for the community."

Powell, an MBA graduate, agrees that without Millennium Place it's unlikely she could have found suitable space for the programs.

But her previous business experience also allows her to look beyond just her use of MY Place. For example she looked into bringing in a child's performer but by the time she crunched all the numbers it wasn't worth her while because the theatre was too small to make enough to even cover expenses if she offered tickets at a price all families could afford.

"I suppose when you think of it as a community centre revenue isn't as important," said Powell.

"But I am a big proponent of bringing revenue in commercially and then funnelling that into local programs. I don't think profit has to be a dirty word and it is a wonderful way to help the community.

"We bring in a lot of money from tourism and it would be nice for us to think of more ways to bring in money for tourism and then funnel that into local programs."

Powell is not alone in her thinking.

Millennium Place's general manager Rob Hallam is also hoping to bring in events which will attract tourists.

"As a tourist you want as wide a range of activities as possible," he said. "It is something we are looking at."

Looking back, Hallam agrees the last year has been a time of learning and challenges.

"We have had this wonderful year of learning and experience and engaging with the community and finding out what they would like to see," he said.

Hallam was the general director of the Vancouver Opera from 1991 until 1999.

When Vancouver Opera did not renew his contract, he was free to pursue other interests. They led him to Whistler and he joined Millennium Place in September of 2000.

"The challenge is the continuation of what we started last year with more involvement with the community and finding ways to engage the community more actively in what is here," he said.

There has been some criticism of the decision to bring in Ticketmaster to the facility, but Hallam defends the idea.

"I know some of the grumblings that have been said in the community but I see it as an absolutely win, win," he said.

"It provides a great service for our facility and an amenity for the community. We have had a huge line-up there, for instance, when the hockey playoffs were on sale. In the past people would have to have spent time on the phones attempting to get through to Vancouver."

There is also a deal in place so tickets under $10 have no Ticketmaster service fee.

He and others have come up with some innovative ideas to make MY Place sing in the next year. Strategic partnerships have been struck with the Whistler Community Arts Council and others and the mood is optimistic.

"We need to capitalize on the relationships and sales force initiatives that local groups have and their networks," said Hallam.

"So we have come up with a program for the next year to help nurture that. We will have partnerships with groups to help that along but that does not in any way suggest that some group which has its own ideas and its own program is somehow restricted from using the theatre."

Hallam is also looking forward to continuing the exploration of what type of events the community wants.

"I think you have to get to know the community and what they will respond to, but I think anyone involved in theatrical presentations also likes to push the envelope a little bit," he said.

"You are constantly trying to find things that will nudge the audience into unexplored territory. But you need to do it in a way that you don't distance yourself from that core base."

Building that core base is high on Doti Nedermeyer's agenda. The new executive director of the Whistler Community Arts Council is excited about working in and with Millennium Place.

"I foresee more partnerships with local groups and more working together in terms of supporting local productions," she said.

Every venue has its issues said Nedermeyer, but at least Whistler now has a theatre where audiences can feel they are being entertained in a modern sophisticated place.

"Now we need to talk about audience development and getting the local and visiting audience to a point where they know the productions of Millennium Place, they are used to coming here, and they know the productions that happen are quality.

"It takes longer than a year to become a habit. And I certainly think that is what the Arts Council and other groups and Millennium Place will be wanting to work on together."

There is no doubt that Millennium Place is a lightening rod for the community.

For some it represents the fulfilment of a dream, a vessel of hope for the cultural and spiritual life of the resort.

For others its contribution to the community is shrouded in doubt.

But one thing is certain.

MY Place is a catalyst. Without it there would be little debate about the role of art, culture and spiritualism in town. There would be no photographic society, no art and music programs for kids, and no where for youths to hangout inside.

"This place doesn't belong to me or to anybody," said Milstein.

"It belongs to you, the community. And like many other things in life you will get out of it what you put into it."




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