Decision on Carleton bid for Dominion Chalmers delayed to end of October: donors stepping forward

The sanctuary at Dominion-Chalmers United Church.

By Kelly Millar and Nathaniel Dove

As it considers a decision on a purchase, Carleton University has already received offers of major donations for the possible purchase of Dominion-Chalmers United Church as a performing arts hub.

The university is now expected to decide by the end of October whether to buy the century-old church at the corner of Cooper and O’Connor streets. The building would be used principally to showcase the talents of students enrolled in Carleton’s music program but would also continue hosting Ottawa Chamberfest, the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival and other high-profile concerts and cultural events.

Carleton’s interim president Alastair Summerlee said in an interview that the university has received offers of funding to help make the purchase should its board of governors vote to proceed with the purchase. “It will not be a direct cost to the institution and therefore will not affect the finances of the university in a negative way,” said Summerlee, sounding upbeat. 

Negotiations have been ongoing with Dominion-Chalmers since June, but Carleton has been contemplating a new performing arts space for some time, said Paul Théberge, assistant director of Carleton’s music program.

“For a number of years,” he said, former Carleton president Roseann O’Reilly Runte “had this project in the back of her mind to build a concert hall. That’s a costly affair to build something like that from scratch, but then the DC church came up … and one idea melted into another.”

In recent years, the church has bedevilled by financial strains and a dwindling congregation. “Fifty years ago we had over 2,000 members — today we have less than 200,” said Rev. James Murray. “It’s just getting beyond our means to carry a building this large.”

The proposed purchase is seen as a way to create a new facility for Carleton while preserving a prime performance venue for the broader community.

“Downtown Ottawa doesn’t need more condos, and though developers are very interested in this location, we think there’s a better purpose for it,” said Murray. “(Carleton) would open a lot more doors but also keep the vital life of the culture of this city going.”

The plan, said Murray, is to collaborate with those stakeholders who have already been using the facility. It’s expected that festival shows and other community events would continue – and there are hopes that the church’s religious role will be maintained, as well.

“We’re hoping to negotiate a lease in the building so that we would be able to continue to worship and do our ministry in a little corner of the space while (Carleton) takes on the building and expands,” said Murray.

The church is considered one of Ottawa’s best venues for live music, and there has been growing concern within the local performing arts community that the possible sale of the building to a developer would result in a major loss to the city’s cultural sector.

“It’s really all we’ve got… in terms of a high-level performance space,” said Julian Armour, artistic and executive director of Music and Beyond, one of the city’s two annual classical music festivals.

He said he believes it’s absolutely “essential” that the church remain available for the community, because many performance groups have “nowhere else to go.” He said Dominion-Chalmers is the only building in the capital region that serves as the right-sized concert hall for many kinds of unamplified performances.

The university is also hoping to extend the church’s potential beyond its use as a performance centre. Summerlee said Carleton is reviewing possible additional uses such as a professional recording studio, a downtown gallery space as an extension of the Carleton University Art Gallery and as a venue for important public lectures hosted by the school.

“For the music program, I think it would be a very transformative because it would give us space that we don’t have right now,” Théberge said of the possible deal. “But music’s not the only group on campus that want to have some input. There’s a number of different departments and groups on campus that would like to see this happen.”

Théberge says hosting community events is “central to the whole idea” of purchasing the property.

Summerlee explained that the board of governors signed a 90-day expression of interest in August to explore the possible purchase of the church. This exploration period is giving the university time to consult with independent experts to examine factors such as an academic rationale for using the space, a building assessment, and identification of potential partners in the project.

“I’m pretty confident now that we will have all of that information by the end of September,” said Summerlee.

The three-month exploration period gave the university governors until late October to make a preliminary decision, then take negotiations to the next stage.

“The university will make sure that it makes the decision with the best possible information and likely will not be rushed into this,” said Summerlee.

According to Armour, who has led a high profile campaign to secure a major new music venue for the capital, the church is the perfect size for many music events. Whereas the National Arts Centre is a wonderful opera facility, he said, what festivals like Chamberfest and Music and Beyond really need is a venue that seats 800 to 1,000 people with just the right acoustic qualities and other features.

The church, possibly with some alterations to create more lobby space and make other improvements, could fit the bill.

Summerlee says that while the details of the potential ownership are still being decided, the motivation for purchasing the church is to bolster the Carleton music and drama departments and to better foster university-community relations.

But there are challenges surrounding the purchase.

Randy Wilts, a partner at the engineering firm Windmill Developments, which has experience purchasing and adapting historic churches, said repurposing historic buildings can be difficult. 

He pointed out that such structures often “have a huge maintenance bill associated with them,” and that finding tradespeople capable of working on such projects never comes cheap.

The buildings tend to be energy inefficient and therefore costly to operate, he added. Wilts also identified the parking lot of the church as a great opportunity for “gentle gentrification” that Carleton may be interested in developing.

But Summerlee has said the church should be financially sustainable without turning the property into a real estate play.

“We certainly don’t have any plans,” he said, “to build Condo 101 on the carpark.”

Kelly Millar and Nathaniel Dove and journalism students at Carleton Univrsity. This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News.

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