When the golden spades drove into the ground last week in Morinville, the work was already under way on the biggest, most expensive community facility the town has seen in decades.
The Morinville Community Cultural Centre, a nearly $12-million project, is designed to serve as a theatre, community hall, art exhibition space and will also host a suite of community rooms.
The drive to create the centre has been helped along by good timing and $6 million in grants, but the spark that started it in motion was the closure of another long-term community facility.
In 2005, the former convent in the centre of town was found to have mould and asbestos. In addition to serving as the town's museum, the convent was also home to many community groups who suddenly found themselves homeless.
At the time, the next major building on the town's radar was an undefined recreation centre, which might have included a field house and possibly a pool in the future.
Morinville Mayor Lloyd Bertschi said when the convent closed, the town had a problem that needed to be addressed.
"That was the beginning of it for sure. We absolutely could not find a way to house every single community group that was there."
The town's museum re-opened in the convent last year, but the rest of the facility was turned into an apartment building.
Bertschi said the town lost an important part of what makes Morinville a nice place to live when the convent was shuttered and he is excited it will be coming back.
"Since the convent closed, our culture in the community has really taken a back seat, but now it will move to the front burner."
As the idea of a new cultural centre took root, a volunteer committee toured other cultural or community facilities in Alberta to try and find elements the town could bring into a facility.
Murray Knight, a director of the Morinville Museum, was one of many community residents who went on that tour and said the new facility helps fill many of the town's needs.
"I am sure we haven't met everybody's needs, but the other thing is that people's needs are governed by dollars and cents," he said. "You have a venue here that will bring in attractions."
In surveys done to plan out community amenities, a cultural centre has not been on the top of residents' lists, with most voting for an aquatics centre.
Bertschi said a pool would cost too much to build and more importantly, maintain, at the town's present population. He cites consultant numbers suggesting operating costs would be equivalent to a 16 per cent tax increase and a similar increase would be needed to build one.
"Nobody has been jumping on me for a 34 per cent tax increase so we can have a swimming pool here."
He said the town's parish hall is also on its last legs.
"The larger community certainly needs this to be able to host weddings and those kinds of things."
When completed, the centre will consist of a large hall that can be used both as a banquet hall and a theatre that will be able to host 400 people.
It will have a large atrium out front of the theatre and four meeting rooms for community groups, as well as storage facilities for supplies.
The theatre will have a large stage complete with dressing rooms and a technical booth.
The centre will also become home to the town's community services department, paving the way for an expansion to the Morinville Library on the lower floor of town hall.
Richard Isaac, the facility's architect, said trying to bring so many different functions into one building was one of the bigger challenges.
He said the facility doesn't do any of those functions absolutely perfectly, but does all of them very well.
"There is no doubt it is not going to be a perfect theatre, but it will be a theatre that will be able to do many things," he said. "You have to be conscious of dealing with all of those different aspects and try to make sure you satisfy as many of those functions as possible."
He said fitting the centre on the narrow piece of land next to Morinville Community High School was also a big challenge.
He said he is pleased with the final design and the way it brings the two buildings together.
"We were trying to use the blue spine from the school and carry it through as a kind of backbone."
The site next to the high school came together as part of a still to be finalized deal between the town and the Greater St. Albert Catholic School Board.
The town will get the land for a nominal fee on a 100-year lease and the school will have access to the facility.
Bertschi said he believes having the high school next door could allow for a lot of collaboration, from the school's wood shop building sets to culinary students catering events.
"The synergy between that facility and the high school is going to be enormous."
In a speech at the groundbreaking, Bertschi said the centre and the school would become the new centre of the community.
"This facility will definitely create a new heart of our community."
The location is not universally loved, however. Forty-eight residents who live across 100th Avenue signed a petition because they believe weddings and concerts across the street will lead to noise in their backyard, disturbing their sleep, hurting their health and affecting property values.
Last week, days before the official groundbreaking, the town won an appeal of the building's development permit launched by some of those residents. The town will be required to make efforts to address the noise issue before the building opens.
The centre is being built with a $6 million split between the federal and provincial governments as part of a stimulus program announced last year.
The money comes with a catch however — the facility must be substantially complete by March, 31 2011.
If construction becomes bogged down or misses the timeline, the town stands the risk of losing that grant.
Bertschi said Morinville has been blessed to have their grant proposal accepted and he now hopes that will continue with the construction schedule.
"Good fortune has been smiling on us. There is no doubt about it and hopefully that will continue."
He also said that is part of why the town went with PCL Construction to build the centre because, as a large firm, they can bring significant resources to bear to get the job done.
Isaac said his firm has worked with PCL from the beginning to make sure there were no major surprises.
Bertschi said he is hopeful the town will be successful renting the facility to wedding and other events at night, but also to businesses during the day for workshops and conferences, getting people from around the region more familiar with what Morinville has to offer.
"It will increase awareness of Morinville. It will bring people out here and I think we have a real opportunity to have the building full 200 or 220 days per year."
Knight said having good facilities helps the community grow and attract new people and this facility is another way to help Morinville shake its reputation as a bedroom community.
"A good community looks after people and I think this new building is going to look after people's needs."