Memorial Hall re-opens after $4 million renovation - May 25, 2017
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
After over $4 million in renovations and upgrades, Blyth Memorial Community Hall re-opened on Friday night to hundreds of members of the public.
A number of dignitaries were on hand for the special ceremony in the late afternoon of May 19. Those involved, including Deputy-Premier Deb Matthews, were part of a private tour of the newly-upgraded facility ahead of the official opening. For the general public, however, the event began with Steven Sparling, Chair of Blyth Arts and Cultural Initiative 14/19, speaking about the hall and the massive project that is now behind the group.
What would grow to become 14/19, Sparling told those assembled, began with a conversation spearheaded by Blyth BIA Chair Rick Elliott. Elliott brought a small group together and began discussing options surrounding modest repairs to Memorial Hall, beginning with the roof.
What followed was the expansion of that conversation and a number of Blyth residents coming together to think bigger in “a village of 1,005 very resilient people.”
He said that when the members of the local Women’s Institute came together to build a living cenotaph to those the village had lost in World War I, they likely had no idea the significance of their gesture. Without them, Sparling said, none of those standing there on Friday would be doing so.
The women had many supporters, but there were some detractors, Sparling said – not unlike with the 14/19 project – but it was hard work and perseverance that resulted in the completion of both projects.
The women raised $25,000 in five years to pay off the project and now, decades later, the hall is home to the Blyth Festival, which will be marking its 43rd season this year.
He acknowledged the foresight of Elliott and the conversation that he started and he also acknowledged the hard work of Project Manager Peter Smith and Administrator Karen Stewart, who, he said, have been on the front lines of the project now for several years.
Matthews said she was honoured to be back in Blyth to see the project through.
It was in March, 2016 that Matthews was on the steps of Memorial Hall announcing that the provincial government would be contributing $3.3 million to the three-pronged project. Since then, a number of things have changed in Blyth.
Blyth Memorial Community Hall is now fully renovated and improved. The theatre has been refurnished with new seats and flooring while also upgraded with improved lighting and sound equipment.
There have been significant upgrades to the lower hall, with a complete overhaul of the event space and kitchen, as well as an expansion of the hallway from the lower hall to the box office, or “the link”, and the installation of digital kiosks that tell the hall’s story to those visiting.
In addition over $250,000 in work has been done at the Phillips Studio, the Festival’s companion theatre on Dinsley Street, to improve its electrical landscape and seating.
In addition, progress has begun on the second prong of the 14/19 plan, which involves the demolition of the former Blyth Public School and the construction of the Grant and Mildred Sparling Centre in its place on King Street – a centre that will house the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity.
On Friday, Matthews remembered back to some of the earliest conversations she had with those involved in 14/19. She remembers being struck by the enthusiasm of Sparling and Smith and some of the village’s other champions and immediately knowing that the project, and the village, was worth fighting for.
Being a representative of the London area, Matthews said she is no stranger to Blyth and has attended the theatre for a number of years. Her family also owns a cottage in Huron County, so she is familiar with the community.
She said that rural Ontario is changing at a rapid pace and the renewal and rejuvenation of Blyth is something that its residents should be proud of and celebrate.
North Huron Reeve Neil Vincent said he was proud to be a part of the ceremony on Friday and that the township is fully supportive of the project and has been since its inception.
He welcomed those in attendance back to the hall and encouraged them to enjoy themselves.
Huron County Warden Jim Ginn spoke to the role the arts play in the county’s economy, saying that what’s going on in Blyth and the Blyth Festival plays no small role in that at the county level.
Blyth Legion President Ric McBurney spoke on behalf of the Legion and the Legion Ladies Auxiliary, saying that the organizations were proud to be a part of what had gone on at the hall and that he was pleased to know that the hall will live on as a cenotaph.
Blyth Festival Artistic Director Gil Garratt said that the last few months have been surreal for him as he has experienced a lengthy period of silence in Memorial Hall for the first time in its history.
“In the last eight months...” he said, “not a single actor has walked on those boards.”
That silence, however, will now make way for a period of rebirth and a new generation of theatre, he said.
Smith spoke last, officially welcoming everyone back into the hall. He said that a project the size of 14/19 in Blyth truly takes a village to pull off.
He thanked the Sparling family for its $1 million donation to the project and said that without champions such as the Sparlings, the project wouldn’t have come close to being accomplished. He also acknowledged many of the other established Blyth families like the Elliotts and the Howsons for the role they have played in the renovation of the hall.
After Smith officially opened the hall, the Celtic Blue Highlanders piped those in attendance into building, which was then opened for self-guided tours until 7 p.m.
For more information on the hall or on the Festival’s coming season, visit www.blythfestival.com. For more information on Blyth Arts and Cultural Initiative 14/19, visit www.blyth1419.com.