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With violence and drug use at its front doors, fence goes up at Alix Goolden Hall

"We need to protect our building and make sure that anyone who wants to come to the conservatory can enter in a safe fashion.”
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People have been blocking Alix Goolden Performance Hall's main entrance stairs and doors. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Security fencing will be installed today outside the Alix Goolden Performance Hall, as operators of the Victoria Conservatory of Music move to address safety concerns around their flagship venue.

The 800-seat hall — home to classical concerts by conservatory students and touring artists — opens onto Pandora Avenue steps from Our Place Society, which serves the city’s vulnerable population.

The entrance has been closed to the public for months due to an increase in drug and alcohol use and violence in the area.

“[The fence] is for the safety and protection of our building,” said Jane Butler McGregor, CEO of the Victoria Conservatory of Music. “Unfortunately, the vulnerable population are using all of our steps and any sort of indent. We need to protect our building and make sure that anyone who wants to come to the conservatory can enter in a safe fashion.”

The school, which also offers music therapy and early childhood music classes, is currently being accessed through an entry on Johnson Street.

Small performances have been held at the hall in recent weeks, now that theatres are permitted to host concerts at full capacity, but fire regulations prohibit large events unless both entries and exits are open.

Despite the new fence, Butler McGregor said she will need to see improvements in the situation on Pandora Avenue before the conservatory returns to full use of the hall. “Until we are satisfied that people can enter and exit our building safely, we will continue to use Johnson Street as our main entrance.”

The conservatory had temporary fencing up for a period before it reopened to the public in September, “but we decided at that point to take it down, to have a more welcoming appearance,” she said. The new fencing will have temporary doors that open onto Pandora Avenue and Quadra Street, she said.

Our Place CEO Julian Daly said “it’s sad that it has come to this,” but he understands why the conservatory is installing security fencing. “You can see every day that people are camping, and sitting around on [the conservatory’s] steps.”

Butler McGregor and Daly were among those who co-signed a letter sent by the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce to Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and council, advocating for increased funding for the Victoria Police Department.

The group met with Chief Del Manak regarding Pandora, and were told the department does not have the resources to deal with increased criminal activity downtown, Butler McGregor said. “We felt, at least as a start, that we needed to support the police and request that the mayor and council approve the increased resources and funding that [Manak] is requesting in this budget.”

Council will vote on the Victoria’s 2022 budget — including a $4-million increase for the VicPD — in January.

In the meantime, the Alix Goolden could remain closed to large events, a blow to the city’s long-suffering arts and culture community, which is still recovering from the pandemic.

This is usually a busy time for Doug Lyngard, president of Victoria’s DL Sound & Lighting, which provides audio and visual support for live events. The company normally does 15 shows a year at Alix Goolden, he said, but the only event it’s booked to do sound for at the hall is Winter Harp on Dec. 10. “It’s a shame, really,” Lyngard said.

The City of Victoria released its Victoria Music Strategy on Nov. 4, portions of which are expected to come into effect in 2022. Butler McGregor, who was on the advisory committee of the arts and culture initiative, isn’t sure what type of impact the investment will have if sites such as the Alix Goolden remain in limbo. “A big part of the strategy is strengthening venues in Victoria. It struck me as unfortunate that one of the venues that is most beloved in Victoria, the Alix Goolden Performance Hall, cannot be used to its full capacity because of the [street] situation.”

Daly, however, believes the situation on Pandora Avenue can be fixed. He’s open to helping Butler McGregor, with whom he has regular meetings, and others in coming up with a solution.

“The folk that are out there with pretty profound mental health and addiction challenges need to get the health services they desperately need, and the folk that are out there exploiting them, and breaking the law, the police need to have the power to do something about that,” he said.

“We have no control over what happens on the pavement — it’s public property.

“We can control what happens in our building, and we do that pretty successfully. Jane putting a fence around the hall is her way of taking back control of her space.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com