Published Friday, May 4, Pages 35 and 36 WEEKEND NATION
HEADLINE: Shift burden!
by RICKY JORDAN
ONE OF THE THREE proposals to restore the derelict Empire Theatre is in a Catch-22 situation. Registered local charity BEAT (Barbados Entertainers, Artistes and Technicians) Foundation, which proposed its restoration plan of the iconic building over a year ago, is now offering to help Government raise the needed funds – some $25 million – to restore and reopen the Probyn Street, City building within a year. But it needs Government’s approval to do so, and urgently, given the deterioration of the structure since its closure almost 35 years ago.
“The Empire is now in a vulnerable state owing to the fact it has been neglected and now has the appearance of being an abandoned structure for years. It has become a tragic eyesore in Bridgetown and we are concerned it is now at risk of being demolished through neglect,” BEAT chairman Jim McGowan told the WEEKEND NATION.
Securing funds, gifts
With this in mind, the foundation wants to shift the burden of responsibility for the funding, restoring and operating of the Empire away from Government and into the hands of the community, which would include philanthropic organizations, the artistic fraternity and the general public. “BEAT believes that given the opportunity, the community will rise up and raise the necessary money and that it will succeed in securing sufficient funding and philanthropic gifts, once the community can get the nod from Government,” McGowan added. “At the end of the day it seems that it comes down to one simple thing, which is: do we have the money to do the project? In our discussions with Government, while they appear to like everything else about our project, the one challenge is that they would like comfort or some assurance that we would get the money. It is an understandable position. However, the problem is that we can’t go out and start a campaign to get the money for a building that we don’t have any legal right to, or at least some form of agreement to,” explained McGowan.
“To go out and start asking for money on behalf of the Empire without having permission or a legal document would make us, essentially, frauds. Therefore, we need to have some letter of comfort, a letter of agreement, some way of Government endorsing and giving us permission to go forward and do the fund-raising. So it’s a chicken and an egg scenario. What comes first? The money or the permission to go and get the money?” asked the founder of BEAT, whose board includes secretary John McKenzie, fund-raising chairman Guy Beauvais, and artistes’ representative Andrew Pilgrim.
Government, meanwhile, has stated it was also considering two other private sector proposals, and though these have not been disclosed in detail by Government or the other proposers, reports have circulated that there is one proposal to use the Empire space as a boutique/brewery and another to restore it as part of an overall Pierhead redevelopment project.
But McGowan, who was involved in the restoration of the Elgin & Winter Garden Theatres, an Ontario Heritage Foundation Project in Toronto, said he believed the BEAT Foundation’s proposal was the only one currently available online for public perusal and the lone one genuinely catering to the arts and heritage aspect. With a vision for Barbados to become “the entertainment capital of the Caribbean”, he suggested that entertainment, developed on a grand scale, could be a catalyst to rejuvenate the economy, create employment opportunities, and add value to the Barbados brand and destination.
“Government has had many years to find the money to restore the Empire, and now BEAT Foundation is asking for a one-year window and to be permitted the opportunity to secure the funding to restore and reopen the Empire. “To give this initiative the best possible chance of success, we would like to see the project be as non-partisan as possible since it is a nation-building one and should therefore be set up for success in a manner that can unite the entire nation,” he added. In fact, McGowan added, if the Empire is seen through the lens of partisan politics, it would potentially divide Barbadians’ views and their support for it.
Vote of confidence
“It might be idealistic to think that we could get unanimous consensus and support from all politicians, but that’s what we’re going to strive for. Basically we’re asking at this point for the politicians to give a vote of confidence to the people, so they could take on the project as citizens, raise the funds, put it back together and use it for public benefit,” he stated.
With costs projected at US$10 million to $15 million, the 859-seat theatre, which opened in 1922 and closed in the late 1970s, has been on the radar of successive Governments for some time, with plans to employ a Cuban architectural firm, to have it retrofitted by Chinese and, mainly, to use it as a centre for the performing arts. Since then, its roof has caved in and it has become a bush-strewn haven for rodents and insects.