7 min

‘We can dream, but I’m interested in reality’

Meet The Centre's new director, Michael Harding

Credit: Natasha Barsotti

The Centre’s newly minted executive director Michael Harding says he’s a believer in reciprocity, and wants to give back to the community from which he came.

Mere days into assuming a portfolio held for 11 years by Donna Wilson, Harding, who has a history of handling significant fundraising ventures in both the corporate and non-profit worlds, sat down with Xtra West to share his vision for The Centre and the diverse community it serves. Here is an excerpt from that interview.

Xtra West: So, why did you want this job?

Michael Harding: Well, I started off my fundraising in the gay community and I raised a lot of money for AIDS Vancouver and then I raised money for McLaren House and wrote the application for their current facility at Helmcken and Davie. And then I went on from that and did a whole lot of other things, launched capital campaigns, then went to the corporate sector. So I’ve got all of this global experience, and I believe that you should put back where you came from. So that’s what I decided to do. And I want to do something for our own community, if the community supports me.

XW: What have been your main priorities since taking up the executive director’s position?

MH: Well, I’ve been here since Monday [Jul 9]. I worked with Donna [Wilson] for a week, just so I could sort of see things. So what I’ve been doing for the last week is basically getting to know the staff well, and changing the building around a little bit because the cupboards were full of old stuff, and getting rid of clutter and just creating a bit of a new feeling, and that’s always good.

Not that it was bad, you know. Donna did an amazing job. She’s left a very tight organization behind her with some amazing people. So I’m taking over something that’s perfectly functional, and now the job is to try and approach what the feasibility study recommends, if the board accepts its recommendations.

XW: What do you feel is the role and place of The Centre vis-à-vis the queer communities it serves?

MH: Well, The Centre is supposed to be a city and province-wide organization that doesn’t just serve people who are in need, but serves the whole community on the level of celebration of being queer.

Because of the existence of AIDS for the last 20 years, our whole community has been really tied up dealing with AIDS. I think there’s an opportunity now for us to look beyond that, and to look at wider services.

I mean, I think all the services that exist here now certainly need to continue and expand and get more funding. But we’d be interested in looking at more global programming through the province.

XW: Is there anything you’d change about The Centre’s mission?

MH: No, the mission statement remains the same.

XW: It’s been suggested that the mission of The Centre is outdated. Do you see it that way?

MH: No, I’d like to know what they mean by that.

XW: The focus, for instance, on AIDS and the devastation that it has wreaked.

MH: I mean, we’re a whole community, and some of our community is not well. Some of our community is perfectly happy and having a great time. Our job is to serve them all.

If we’re able to come up with a place that could have a clinic, and dentists, and doctors and all of that, as well as meeting rooms and fantastic activities going on, and a theatre and a café — woo hoo! But let’s see what the reality is.

I think the mandate’s fine. I just think we need to add stuff. But with this budget we have now, we can’t add stuff. The staff are already at maximum, and I will not overwork people.

So we’ll have to look at what we can bring in that we’ll add, and let new things happen.

XW: Do you have a sense of an ideal centre in your imagination?

MH: My job is to do what the feasibility study comes up with because it met with community. And now the feasibility study went out and defined what that would look like in terms of space. We have to find out what it would cost, and then the big deal is, where is the money going to come from. Yeah, we can dream, but I’m interested in reality.

XW: How far have you reached in identifying interim space?

MH: Four days into the job, no, I have not identified a space, but the city does have a number of buildings that are possible. Some of them would be in wrong locations. So we’ll see.

There are different things you can do if you want to get a building in this city. One of them is build your own. One of them is go into a relationship with a developer who’s wanting to build a building and they want to go five floors higher, and you get one of those density plan things.

And another is the city buys buildings, some of which they allow non-profits to go into rent free, but you pay for all the costs like Hydro and stuff like that, which can be quite high.

I’m talking with them about anything. Right now, we need space forever or for a short space of time and I’ll look at anything.

I must admit I’ve had very positive feedback. They’re taking this very seriously. The city paid for the feasibility study so that is a precedent. The city staff have been very welcoming. They know we’ve been here for 30 years and we serve 30,000 people.

XW: Are you actively looking for something in the West End or are you casting further afield?

MH: Our history is in the West End. We’ve got to have a home. There’s no reason why we couldn’t maybe have satellites, or maybe have another building in the West End. Who knows?

XW: Some say that the new building should be located outside the West End since many gay men are moving out of the area. How would you respond to that?

MH: As I say, we have a mandate to serve the city and the province and I think we should have satellite stuff going on. So we can have stuff in the East End, or wherever queer communities are emerging, and that would let us move, too.

XW: But you see the new building being headquartered in the West End?

MH: Well, let’s see what money we can get. And let’s see what’s available. I mean, it’s nice to see something, but it’s very different building it. So we’re looking at all the options, and it’s pretty encouraging, actually.

XW: There has been what some people say is painfully slow progress towards the construction of the new facility, or finding new facilities. The recent open house shows there is a Phase Three…

MH: Slow?

XW: Talk about this has been going on for the last 10 years — maybe active progress in the last two years. There is a Phase Three now in the works, including more consultation. Some people are wondering why things are moving so slowly.

MH: Well, the community as a whole is sometimes slow to make decisions. And getting consensus in our community isn’t exactly the easiest thing on the planet.

So, I don’t know, it’s moving pretty fast now.

In order to find out where the money is coming from, we’re going to have to visit the federal, provincial and municipal governments. We’re going to have to visit a number of corporations, queer business owners, and some people in the community who put things on. You know, fundraisers that raise $2,500 are not what we’re talking about if you’re raising $12 million.

So in three or four months, I don’t see why that shouldn’t be a good schedule to come up with knowing what might be available. Who knows what the federal government will respond with.

XW: You’re in the process of setting up meetings?

MH: Oh, yeah. I’ll go to Ottawa when Parliament is back.

XW: In your estimation, is there a need for further consultation with the community with regard to what the facilities will look like? Or is that settled now, and you’re ready to move forward?

MH: The study’s been done and everybody has had their input. But we’ll keep talking to everybody. We’re supposed to do that.

XW: Is anything jumping out at you in terms of what the community response has been from the various consultations?

MH: I read the feasibility study, and I’m going to read it another couple of times so it sinks in properly. But people seem to want activity facilities, they want some medical facilities and they want a performance space. Toronto’s got it, so why can’t we?

XW: In terms of the assessment of the community’s ability to raise the funds, that’s part of Phase Three. Is that process going on?

MH: Well, we have to look at that. That is not being done and so somebody, probably me, will end up talking to people.

Lots of people will say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m behind you.’ Well, how many zeros are on the cheque then, you know?

That’s what it gets to. There are only so many dollars for us out there. There are other capital campaigns starting in the queer community, so we don’t want to start trampling all over each other because we’ve got to do it so it works, so everybody gets what they want. We’ll see.

XW: My understanding is that it’s going to take another five years or so before we actually see new facilities. [The Centre’s co-chair] Craig Maynard was talking about 2012 as a possibility. Is that the timeframe that you’re working with?

MH: Well, it depends. It depends on if we’re building something. If reality says we can build something, it would be stupid to build something in this town before 2010’s over because construction prices are going up hugely. I mean prices have gone nuts. You try and get somebody to put dry wall up right now and you can buy a Cadillac from the money you’re going to get from it.

So, you know, start to finish, new buildings are about five years. As I say, no one’s got a bag of fairy dust. You can’t spray it overnight. But what happens if some building can be made available? I don’t know.

As a community, we have to go ‘let’s be real about this.’ Let’s look at what is really available, and let’s look at how much money is really available, and let’s get the best possible thing that’s going to look wonderful and, you know, do it.