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WAC and MY Place Society join forces

Two non-profit groups come together under one roof as of June 2

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To the average arts patron, Maurice Young Millennium Place (MY Place) has probably seemed rather quiet over the past year and half, with only a few public events staged there. But there has been plenty going on behind the scenes, as staff from MY Place and Whistler Arts Council (WAC) have been hashing out a plan to merge the two organizations into one.

The merger rose from a functional review of operations funded by WAC and the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) that took place in fall 2008, which made a number of recommendations, including the key suggestion that MY Place and WAC merge.

That recommendation did not come as a surprise to Doti Niedermayer, executive director of WAC. In fact, she saw it as an important first step towards growing the local arts community.

"I believe that a healthy arts community involves numerous groups and organizers and presenters and organizers and passionate people," she said.

"But in this case, where there are two organizations that have such a similar mandate in so many ways, it doesn't make sense to have two separate boards of directors and two separate offices and equipment and buildings."

It has taken over a year to merge the two organizations, a process that has proven to be fraught with paperwork.

"It's pretty challenging to try and take two organizations and make them into one. But in between that we have to remember that we also had a four-month chunk of time where each organization had very specific objectives towards the Olympics and that was sort of time that we had to take away from the integration," said Louise Lundy, who stepped into the role of interim general manager of MY Place in March 2009.

"...We had to focus on what we had to get done and that was integration, cleaning up Millennium Place and getting ourselves ready for this merger, and that's what we did. And really we just couldn't take our eye off of that, and that's why we didn't do any programming."

To avoid expensive legal fees of immediately dissolving a non-profit society, which are estimated at around $20,000, they have opted instead to simply phase Maurice Young Millennium Place Society out of being over a few years.

"It's actually really expensive to wind up a society, so we basically consulted our lawyers and tried to work out what makes the most sense and what's the most affordable way to wind up the society," Lundy explained.

Now, provided that the board and Charities Directorate approve the changes to WAC's bylaws and constitution at WAC's annual general meeting on Wednesday, June 2, the merger will be complete.

The merging of the two societies has allowed streamlining of operations. Since WAC has been working out of MY Place since December 2008, they've already started seeing efficiencies and cost-savings on photocopier lease agreements, accounting and administrative costs, as well as only one server, website and e-mail system, one set of books and one audit.

"All the requirements to keep our status as a not-for-profit charitable organization, annual general meetings, reports to the Charities Directorate, reports to the B.C. Registrar's Society - this is all very time-consuming kind of stuff that I spend a lot of time on," Niedermayer said.

Niedermayer hopes to take these "significant" savings and redirect the money towards programming, which should help compensate for the loss of revenue from the B.C. Gaming Grants.

"The cuts in the funding from the province are quite devastating," Niedermayer said. "It's quite significant for us for our core programs, and our summer programs especially: the Children's Festival, ArtWalk and the Art Workshops on the Lake. And I would say that if we were not merging right now, I'd be really, really, really worried."

One of the hardest parts about the merging has been figuring out how to integrate the existing staff into the new organization.

"You're creating a new team, in effect, and it's a new dynamic," Niedermayer said.

Lundy's contract is up in July and at that point, Niedermayer and other WAC staff will step up to take over her various responsibilities.

By merging the two societies, they've been able to find the money to hire Dean Feser of Rocky Mountain Productions as a full time technical director, who will handle MY Place and off-premises events organized by WAC, like the annual Children's Art Festival and ArtWalk.

Some of the existing staff will also be asked to take on new roles and responsibilities, but other than these minor changes, there won't be any major cuts.

"There aren't any extra people hanging around that we have to get rid of, or anything like that," Niedermayer said. "We've both been pretty lean."

Over the past year, Lundy explained that MY Place was focused on renting space rather than programming; basically "maintaining the status quo" and ensuring their "books looked good" while focusing on integrating the two societies.

"I anticipate growth in the future because I think as the Whistler Arts Council starts to program the building, we start actually marketing the building - we've laid that foundation, we're ready to go with starting to attract people to come use the building," Lundy added.

Though the review of operations report recommended that other non arts-related groups that are tenants in the building be moved out to avoid confusion, at this point it isn't a realistic approach because there is limited affordable rental space for these groups in the community. For now, these groups will remain in MY Place as part of an in-kind arrangement with the RMOW, receiving space in exchange for light, heat and general maintenance.

"As part of our operating agreement with the RMOW, what we did was we took the spaces that they have been using - the iHost offices, the Youth Centre, council meetings on Tuesdays - and basically said, 'okay, this is how much in rent you're paying, so that kind of matches how much we need for maintenance of the building," Lundy explained.

"I think we need to max out on the space we have and then start complaining," Niedermayer added, smiling.

In the past, each group has had a separate fee for service agreement through the municipality's Community Enrichment Program. But as of June 1, the remainder of MYMPS's funding will be rolled into a new operating agreement between WAC and the RMOW in regards to MY Place.

"So it sort of takes on what the Millennium Place Society had with the municipality prior," Niedermayer said.

MYMPS has already held a meeting to amend its constitution and bylaws, making their operational role at MY Place very limited. But one of their board members, Sue Adams, will be joining the WAC board to help ensure there is a transfer of knowledge and continuity for the staff at WAC who are new to the role of facility management.

As of the beginning of June, the two organizations are officially merged to create one enhanced society that falls under the name of Whistler Arts Council. The RMOW bought out the mortgage on MY Place in March 2010, and will be responsible for maintaining the facility, while WAC will handle programming.

"I'm confident, I think we'll do a great job - we're programmers - so I think we have the capacity to work with the community and create a great program and create a vibrant building," Niedermayer said.

"We've been working in the building since it opened programming events, so we are familiar with the space and what's worked for us and what hasn't worked for us."

Both women see the merger as a first step towards making this "key venue" a real hub for arts and culture in the community. And now that the amalgamation is finally reaching its end stage, WAC wants to put the word out to community groups that they have a place at the facility.

"We're open to talking - we want them to come back," Lundy said.

"One of the mandates for the building is to become a hub for arts and culture, so while it will still require commercial rentals to bring in some funding to subsidize the community rental, I'm hoping that there will be more community use of the building and more programming by other groups," Niedermayer added.

They are in the process of reviewing room rental rates and looking at what other communities are doing to help support community groups and make MY Place more accessible to locals.