Does Cumberland want to save the historic Ilo Ilo Theatre or does it want to create a performing arts space in the most viable location?

That was a question debated Saturday afternoon in the renovated lobby of the former opera house by about 30 Cumberland business people, residents and performers.

It’s an urgent question because Henry Fletcher, who has spent “a stressful” year trying to save the theatre as a performance venue, has reached the end of his resources and is moving back to Toronto this week.

His parents, who bought the building in 2007, have listed the Ilo Ilo for sale at $1.25 million.

The building began life in 1914 as an opera house and transformed over the years into a movie theatre and a dance hall. It was last used as an an auction house operated by Dave and Cathy Stevens until July 2007.

None of those discussing the theatre’s fate on Saturday questioned the need for a new performing arts venue in the Comox Valley.

“There’s a hunger for performing arts space,” said Meagan Coursons, an arts promoter and executive director of the Cumberland Community Forest Society. “People are starving for it.”

It’s hard to book the busy Sid Williams Theatre in Courtenay, and it’s expensive for struggling performing arts groups.

And there was no doubt among participants in Saturday’s discussion that a cultural economy could be created in Cumberland around the demand for space.

Darren Adam, owner of the Cumberland Brewing Company, said if the building could be renovated, then the “end result as an economic driver is beyond words.”

But Adam questioned whether a community project to preserve, restore and promote the Ilo Ilo as a performing arts space was a viable option.

Nick Ward, owner of The Update Company, a website design and marketing business, said it would take at least $500,000 and probably more to renovate the theatre building. And Adam doubted whether the village or individuals with the expertise to take on such a large fundraising project had the capacity to do so at this time.

“There’s no privately owned theatre in Canada that doesn’t rely on a public subsidy,” Adam said. “And the village is already heavily taxed.”

He said it took “an amazing effort” to create the Cumberland Community Forest, but to do it again would be “a long shot.”

Admitting that she has a “romantic attachment” to historic theatre, Cursons said the community needs to have a larger conversation about it really wants — to save the Ilo Ilo or to create performing arts space.

The Cumberland United Church building is also for sale at a much lower purchase price and could be renovated more inexpensively.

“We have to focus on one project, or we could lose both,” Cursons said. “What is the more achievable goal? If it’s performing arts space we want, then we need to get this conversation outside of the building (Ilo Ilo).”

The group agreed on the need for a community mandate.

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George Le Masurier

DecafNation