The former director of the Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre on lower Queen Street wrote to the City of Kingston - the gallery's landlord - a few months after construction began on the new sports and entertainment centre half a block away. Gallery staff were in a state of limbo and uncertainty over their future. "We can see [the] construction activity," wrote Gjennifer Snider, who has since left the organization. "We feel we have the sword of Damocles hanging over our head."
Ten months have passed and Damocles has not yet dropped his sword on the tiny non-profit gallery. But the gnawing uncertainty over its future persists, in part because Modern Fuel has been getting mixed messages from the city.
A fixture in Kingston's downtown core for the past 30 years, Modern Fuel has a lease with the city that is due to expire next April, though it's not clear if the sword will actually drop at that time either. The gallery may be allowed to stay where it is after April or it may be asked to find new digs.
The problem is that, except for the impending departure of the Kingston police station and the anticipated opening of the new arena and convention centre, no one really knows what's happening in that neck of the woods, called the North Block, right now. And the uncertainty means Modern Fuel is essentially a lame-duck business, unable to book artists and new shows much past the fall. It's an untenable situation for any arts organization. To survive, a gallery must be able to plan events well in advance.
Councillor Bill Glover, one of a new breed of councillors committed to helping local arts groups, has a proposal that may alleviate some of the uncertainty plaguing Modern Fuel. Glover will ask the city's arts, recreation and community policies committee to extend the gallery's lease by three years when it meets on Thursday. The extension, which the committee should approve, will allow the gallery to continue operating while it - and the city - ponder its future.
The question facing Modern Fuel and city hall is whether the gallery will still "fit" the neighbourhood once the $46.1-million arena and convention centre is completed. To answer that question, city officials must decide what they want to do with the entire four-and-a-half block "North Block." Four of the blocks are bounded by Queen, King, Place D'Armes and Wellington streets and the remaining half block is located behind the S&R Department Store and used for parking.
This past March, city council voted to spend $250,000 to study the redevelopment possibilities for the area surrounding the sports and entertainment centre - a study that is not yet under way and may be unnecessary. In 2004, the city commissioned a $100,000 study by Baird Sampson Neuert Architects that set out a number of creative scenarios for the "North Block Central Business District," one of which included a 5,000-seat arena.
The staff at Modern Fuel aren't the only ones with a stake in what happens to the North Block. Developer Kim Donovan, who owns or has options on half the area, is also keen to get going. Donovan believes arts and cultural groups are essential to a carefully redeveloped North Block. He's currently renovating the first floor of the GoodLife building so non-profit community groups can make use of the space.
The North Block is a special area. It should not be developed in a piecemeal manner. Nor should longtime organizations suffer because of municipal indecision.
It's time for Damocles to put away his sword.