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Donation means bye-bye mortgage for Belfry

A $250,000 pledge from the Belfry Theatre's former chairman and his family will allow the company to pay off its mortgage in less than a year.

A $250,000 pledge from the Belfry Theatre's former chairman and his family will allow the company to pay off its mortgage in less than a year.

Paddy Stewart announced the gift at a roast Sunday night to honour his 34 years as chairman of the theatre board.

"I am making an initial donation myself of $80,000 and will go after my family's funds for the rest," Stewart said yesterday. "If I can't get it all from the funds, I will bully some other family member to give it to me, or I will sell a painting." He noted this amount brings his gifts to more than $1 million.

"The bottom line is I have personally guaranteed the Belfry $250,000 by our fiscal year-end next May."

Belfry publicist Mark Dusseault said the company owes about $380,000 on its mortgage and will put the $250,000 toward that debt.

It will then apply for $250,000 in matching funds from the Foundation for Arts Sustainability in Victoria. The application, if successful, would allow the Belfry to retire its mortgage. The foundation, incorporated in 2006, is working to provide major grants to five city arts organizations with budgets topping $750,000. The theatre's budget is about $2.5 million. The critical element is that each arts group must first raise the matching funds.

This gift means the 275-seat theatre will be not only debt free but also have $120,000 left over to do "green" renovations such as installing solar panels, "or maybe bamboo or raffia carpeting" joked Stewart.

But most of all, it will ensure the position of his beloved theatre is "solidified."

"It has always been in good fiscal shape, but this is the final piece of the puzzle. It is not easy raising money right now, but Mary (Despres, general manager since 1987) has spent her entire life bullying me to death and I had to do this because I'm so afraid of her.

"I also get to take credit, although I am bringing my whole family into this." Stewart's family started Canada Packers in 1927 and then established the McLean Foundation in Toronto. His parents started their own fund at the Vancouver Foundation. Stewart, who says he has been "retired" most of his life, will tap into both.

"This city has always been dependent on its patrons -- people like Jane and George Heffelfinger and Eric Charman," longtime supporters of both the Victoria Symphony and Pacific Opera Victoria.

Stewart joined the Belfry's board of directors in 1975, and was chairman until November 2008. This isn't the first time he has ridden in on a white charger. During an economic downturn in the early 1980s, he personally guaranteed the theatre's line of credit. In the 1990s, he played a pivotal role in raising money from Canadian foundations to purchase and renovate the former church building.

achamberlain@tc.canwest.com