Carleton’s offer to buy Dominion Chalmers began with a strategic plan

Dominion-Chalmers United Church, exterior.

When Dr. Roseann O’Reilly Runte took up the job as president and vice-rector of Carleton University in 2008, one of the first jobs on her to do list was a strategic plan to guide the development of the institution.

To that end she began a series of meetings with interested members of the community including with focus groups of parents, students and faculty. In those discussions, one need was regularly raised: a concert hall.

“We had looked at all the universities with a music degree and Carleton was the only one without a concert hall,” she said in an interview.

So perhaps then it’s no surprise that in June 2016, with no concert hall for Carleton on the horizon, representatives of the congregation of Dominion-Chalmers United Church came calling on Runte with an idea.

“The people from Dominion-Chalmers came to see me and asked if Carleton would possibly be interested in acquiring the church for our academic purposes and community use as well.

“It was in Carleton’s strategic plan to have a concert hall. We had always thought of having it on campus. But after they came to see me, I thought that having the performance space more centrally located in the city would be a great advantage and would cement Carleton’s role as strong member of this community.”

“People just drive by Carleton on the way to the airport. So many people go to Dominion-Chalmers for concerts and so on. It seemed like it could be a great way for the university to work with the community.”

She decided to take the idea seriously.

The first step was a tour of the building on O’Connor. Runte is a music lover and had been to concerts in the sanctuary but she was unaware of the rest of the building, which contains rooms that could be used for classes and rehearsals. It was a revelation.

“I had absolutely no idea about all the other space around it that could be used for a sound studio, for classrooms, activities, the imagination goes wild over it.”

She took the idea to the executive committee of the university’s board of governors.

“I told the executive committee that I had had that visit.” The committee said that any project of that size and scope required a business plan, a condition report on all aspects of the 100 year old building and the money needed to purchase it.

“It was quite a long list of things to do which are obviously due diligence and a deep responsibility of a board to do and say.

“From that point on I attempted to raise some money to purchase it. I had a condition report done. I wanted to ensure that, if Carleton did something, it would have the support of the community so I met with people like city councillors and the business and community associations and they all wrote letters of support.”

A business plan emerged quickly. Runte knew the university could only use the sanctuary space on a certain number of nights. In the meantime, representatives from various users of the space including the Music and Beyond festival and Chamberfest, approached and said they had heard Carleton was looking at Dominion-Chalmers. They all wanted to stay.

She told the groups absolutely knowing that they would then keep renting the space.

Another organization that was interested was the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra. The OSO is a full-size orchestra with about 100 musicians in need of a home downtown.

An examination found that the Dominion-Chalmers stage could be made larger to accommodate the OSO. And the potential was there to have a recording studio in the basement that could even be used to capture concerts in the sanctuary.

In her on-going contacts with the community about this project, Runte received encouragement from City Hall, from the province of Ontario and the local MP, Catherine McKenna.

“The city is really interested in making an arts hub in the city.” The idea is that such a hub would help to attract the kinds of workers that high tech companies need to grow their businesses.

“We need to start something here (in Ottawa),” Runte said.

Along the way private individuals and public bodies committed to help support the purchase of the building and needed upgrades.

Her condition report showed Dominion-Chalmers needed a new boiler and work on the air-conditioning system. In the expansion of the stage the organ, which now sits in the centre of the alter, will have to be moved. And as well the O’Connor Street entrance needs a new look. If everything goes ahead, the foyer will be expanded and areas will be created to display the work of students, along with Carleton’s collection of art and artifacts.

By June 2017, Runte handed in a report to the board of governors of Carleton and prepared to move to her current job as president and CEO of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.

Now that the board has decided to proceed with the purchase, after more due diligence, “I’m just grateful the board carried on and continued doing the due diligence necessary. My successor, Alastair Summerlee, has worked really hard to finish all the things I left unfinished.

“He’s done a great job and the university sees the advantage of having this facility downtown. The city sees the advantage too. I think it’s a big win for everybody.”

“I think this is a good story. Now the board has taken the important step to move forward and I think they should be well congratulated. This is a big step for them.”

She says that the best and most successful universities in the world are strongly linked to their community. Schools such as Ryerson, Queen’s and Simon Fraser have become important players in their communities.

For Carleton, which is outside downtown, a presence there is important, she says.

“Being able to have a location downtown gives it a little edge. Students in music live off campus any way. It will be lovely for the community and good for the students.

“I can see more people coming in (to use the facility) from the community. Almost all the festivals run all year round now so there are plenty of concerts that would come in.

“I think it will all just come alive.”

The development of Dominion-Chalmers won’t preclude a possible concert hall on Carleton campus, she says.

“Who knows the needs of the future? All that will have to come into consideration. But this will make the space live and serve the community now. You never know what it will morph into. It’s a great investment in the present and the future. I think Carleton gets the congratulations.”

It’s also a chance to celebrate Carleton’s music school, which she ssays “is a┬ástrong, wonderful program.”

As for her?

“I will enjoy going to a concert or two. I go to Chamberfest, Music and Beyond, the NAC and OSO. I can’t buy season tickets because of my work schedule but whenever I can, I do go. At Carleton I got to go to the student recitals and I enjoyed them too.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.