Renovations to Bronson Centre could answer Ottawa music fans’ prayers

Bronson CEntre
Ottawa's Bronson Centre. Photo via Google Maps

The Bronson Centre is teaming up with the owners of a Toronto concert hall in a bid to turn the non-profit Ottawa corporation’s downtown theatre space into a must-visit venue for touring music acts.

Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre said this week it has signed a long-term lease to manage the Bronson Centre’s 864-seat performance theatre. The company said it plans to install the latest in sound and lighting technology and renovate the washrooms and change rooms at the aging concert hall in an effort to make it a go-to destination for more live acts.

The new operators, who will take over the facility on Oct. 1, also plan to replace the permanent seats in the concert hall with removable seating to boost standing-room capacity. Other upgrades include installing air conditioning to make the venue more attractive as a summer concert site.

“We come in with a focus to make sure it’s a great concert experience, both for the fans and the artists themselves,” said Phoenix Concert Theatre president Lisa Zbitnew, a former Ottawa resident.

“It’s a great theatre as it exists, but it definitely needs some upgrades.”

The concert hall is located in the 45,000-square-foot former home of Immaculata High School, which was built in 1928 and was expanded several times. The school moved to Main Street in 1994, and the Bronson Centre was established at the site two years later.

The charity organization, which bought the building on Bronson Avenue from the Grey Sisters of the Immaculate Conception two years ago, currently provides affordable office space for about 40 permanent tenants that are also non-profit agencies. It generates most of its revenues from renting out the performance theatre as well as a 250-seat community hall and various meeting rooms and rehearsal spaces.

Bronson Centre executive director Corey Mayville said the new partnership will help the facility boost its revenues while raising its profile in the community. He said the agency’s mandate to keep rents affordable means it’s constantly looking for ways to generate more income, and the additional publicity that big-name music acts will create is bound to help.

“When the owners of the Phoenix group were interested in us, it really just got us excited and made a lot of sense,” he said.

The new deal could also be a boon to Ottawa’s fledgling “music city” strategy that aims to grow the capital’s artistic industries.

Music industry insiders have long complained about the lack of a modern mid-sized live music venue in the downtown core, and Zbitnew agrees Ottawa suffers from a “capacity gap” in concert halls that seat between 500 and 2,500 people.

She hopes her organization’s planned renovations to the Bronson Centre will turn the facility into a “viable option” for more touring artists, adding her goal is to raise the number of annual performances at the site from the current average of about 50 to more than 100.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for artists to play,” Zbitnew said. “They just need places to perform. It’s a great business opportunity, I think. It might take some time, but Ottawa is a growing market. It’s a significant market that I think a lot of people wrote off for a lot of years as a sleepy government town, but it’s not that any longer.”

Under the agreement, concert promotion agency Collective Concerts will take on the task of booking acts for the theatre, freeing up Mayville and his small administrative staff of four to focus on serving the Bronson Centre’s non-profit clients.

Mayville said the arrangement will help the organization stay viable for the long haul.

“There’s a lot of upkeep,” he said. “That is always a challenge, so with this raised profile and these increased revenues, it’s really going to help us continue to do what we’re doing for many, many years to come.”

Zbitnew said hopes the agreement paves the way for more partnerships between traditional businesses and social enterprises like the Bronson Centre.

“This is a building that I think a lot of people drive by it and still think it’s a Catholic school and don’t really realize the significance of the work that they do,” she explained. “You have to know that there are other buildings, other facilities, other opportunities where these kind of efforts can be (launched) and networked in a positive way.”