Qmunity launches community consultations for new LGBT centre

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      Perhaps 31 years ago, people needed to be discreet about entering queer resource centre. Not so today, says Qmunity executive director Dara Parker.

      "Now we want to be loud and proud and accessible in every sense of the word," she said. "So we want to be front-facing, in your face, celebrating our incredible communities."

      Parker addressed a room full of 120 people attending the first Building Qmunity consultation dialogue session at the SFU Segal Building today (May 27). The session kicks off a series of community dialogues designed to get feedback about how to shape the future programming and services at Qmunity's new facility.

      Parker recapped her organization's long search for a new facility.

      Qmunity (originally called The Centre) was founded in 1979 and has been at their current location since 1984. Parker said the current second-floor location at 1170 Bute Street is geographically "fantastic" in the heart of the Davie Village, with easy access by transit, and a downtown location. However, she pointed out it has "significant limitations", such as not being physically accessible to all people as a second-floor space with only stairs and without an elevator. She added that it was originally an apartment building and was not designed to be a community centre.

      Moreover, the organization has outgrown its premises.

      "We're constantly at capacity and our meeting rooms are booked by community groups out all evenings and weekends," she said. "It's completely the wrong layout….It's the wrong mix of administrative and programming space."

      A search for a new space dates back over 20 years. After Qmunity began working with City of Vancouver to find a new facility, Qmunity became involved in a West End neighbourhood planning process and was identified as a priority in the West End community plan adopted in November 2013.

      Qmunity will receive a community amenity contribution of $7 million. (The City of Vancouver budgeted $10 million for Qmunity in December 2013.)

      Over the 20 years of searching for a new location, she said the one consistent feedback is to find a location in or near West End, which poses challenges.

      "There's very limited geography in the gaybourhood, and that's the biggest challenge for us is, not that there aren't any sites, but there's no publicly owned land which means that the city can't just give us a piece of land," she said. "We have to work with developers and the city to identify a site."

      They're also searching for a space that is 10,000 square feet (based on a feasibility study in 2007) with some street-level access.

      The 519 Community Centre's executive director Maura Lawless spoke about her organization's challenges in renovating their facility.
      Craig Takeuchi

      Toronto's 519 Community Centre executive director Maura Lawless was invited as a keynote speaker to talk about her organization's experiences in redeveloping their centre.

      The 519, Toronto's LGBT community centre, is a city agency and all staff are therefore City of Toronto employees. It has 2,900 formal members with 230 community groups using their space and programs.

      It was founded in early 1970s in a building purchased by the City of Toronto, although it wasn't an exclusively LGBT organization in its early years. It did become the first city-run community centre where the community controlled the programming, Lawless said.

      When the organization sought to renovate and build a new wing a few years ago, the proposed renovation layout was problematic.

      "The design was intended to meet the immediate needs that were relevant to the community at that time, but they certainly didn't take into account the evolution of our community over long periods of time," she said. "There was nothing that connected the building to the street or made it useful or in any way appealing to the wider community. So we changed the design."

      Lawless said they now have a welcoming common area, a social-enterprise restaurant called Farbarnak (which she said employs individuals with employment barriers and brings in customers from the wider community who may not have otherwise entered the building), and a family-resource program.

      She also emphasized the importance of the relation between spaces and self-esteem, and to think about spaces as a legacy for future generations.

      "Spaces need to be beautiful, they need to be inviting, and communities—especially marginalized communities—from our perspective certainly have a right to be proud of the environments in which they spend their time," she said. "When space is beautiful, people take care of it and it imparts a sense of respect and self-worth."

      Among the mistake they made, she noted that they didn't consider technological developments and spent too much on hardwiring.

      Consequently, she said they learned that what's most important is to design a space that is "adaptive, open, and has multiple uses" used by individuals and groups. Also, they developed a flexible framework to respond to changing needs to community, which evolves over time.

      They're now seeking to develop an inclusive recreation centre, which will become the first LGBT sport recreation facility, to increase access to physical activity for health and wellness. She noted that it has taken three years for her organization to secure a site.

      While discussions took place at the daylong event, Parker pointed out that there are other ways for community members to contribute to consultations. There will be an online survey at the Qmunity website available until August.

      There will also be seven smaller group dialogues on evenings and weekends. They will be organized according to identity: youth, trans, newcomers, seniors, families, disability, and people of colour. Participants will be able to sign up online. Specific dates are still to be determined but will take place from June to August.

      The discussions and survey are also open to allies, including parents, teachers, and business owners.

      Parker told the Georgia Straight that they hired the SFU Centre for Dialogue to conduct the consultation process to ensure neutrality and transparency. She explained the SFU Centre will collate all data gathered from these discussions and the survey and will produce a public report that will be made available in December or January.

      In February, Qmunity will hold a forum with community leaders to discuss the findings from the report.