The Aron Theatre Co-operative Inc. is a not-for-profit co-operative that aims to transform the historic Aron Theatre in Campbellford, Ontario, into a sustainable cultural hub. The Co-operative is owned and managed by community members for community members. They offer a range of artistic and cultural events, including weekly movie showings, occasional live music and comedy shows, movie festivals through the Toronto International Film Festival fundraisers, and Christmas sing-alongs. They work under the International Co-operative Alliance’s definition of a “co-operative” as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”.
The Aron Theatre is located in the town of Campbellford in Northumberland County, Ontario. Campbellford is a small town of approximately 3,500 people, and lies midway between the cities of Toronto and Ottawa, along the Trent-Severn Waterway and the Trans Canada Trail. Campbellford developed mostly as an agricultural community, and became central to the region due to its hospital (a large employer), high school, and heritage. The town faces a number of challenges as a result of its rural location: the outmigration of youth, a lack of economic diversity and industrial development, and a declining sense of community. Still, tourists and young families are increasingly attracted to its vibrant arts scene and natural surroundings. The Aron Theatre is considered an anchor business in the community and meets entertainment and leisure needs of residents and tourists alike. Without the theatre, movie-goers would have to travel approximately an hour away, to cities like Peterborough and Belleville.
The Aron Theatre has been a part of Campbellford since 1946. Originally a livery stable used by the former St. Lawrence Hotel, the theatre was privately owned and managed for many years. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, economic decline and a rapidly evolving film industry threatened the theatre’s survival. By 2009, the Aron Theatre was set to close. Faced with the possibility of losing a key piece of Campbellford’s history and character, the community rallied in support of the theatre. A community meeting was scheduled to discuss the future of the Aron; over 160 people attended. During the meeting, local citizens had a chance to reconnect with each other and with the theatre by sharing past experiences, anecdotes, and stories of the Aron. Community members put forward the idea that the community could purchase the theatre from the previous owner as a not-for-profit co-operative. The plan was to establish the Aron Theatre Co-operative, and for local people to buy memberships and make pledges to purchase “Aron Co-op Bonds”. Although the co-op concept was new to many, town residents eventually came to understand and support the plan. The community purchased 160 memberships and pledged $31,000 worth of bonds.
A founding Board of Directors established the Aron Theatre Co-op. As a first step, the board worked to incorporate the co-operative and purchase the Aron from the owner, Paul Imperial. In the early stages, board members also applied for grants, held fundraisers, engaged new co-op members, established relationships with the community, and garnered support for the theatre. One of the first challenges they faced was the need to upgrade to digital technology, as Hollywood studios were beginning the shift from 35 millimeter film to digital files. The estimated cost of this upgrade was $90,000. Through a combination of grant funding and public support, the co-op managed to secure the funds to purchase a $96,000 digital projector and sound system. This significant upgrade allowed the Aron Theatre Co-operative to show on-release Hollywood movies for the first time in twenty years. This change once again allowed the theatre to cater to the desire of young community members to access the newest blockbuster releases, and thus to reinforce its revenue stream by welcoming younger, and more diverse viewers. Once this core business offering was taken care of, the co-op’s focus turned to providing a top-quality experience and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the Aron as a community hub and cultural centre.
Since incorporating in 2010, and acquiring the theatre in 2011, the Aron Theatre Co-op has been led by a Board of Directors, including founding president Russ Christianson. Board members are nominated and elected during Annual General Meetings. Those nominated are typically a diverse group of community members with a wide range of skills and interests. Until 2014, the Board had a very “hands-on” role, but it is now transitioning away from day-to-day operations and focusing on long-term sustainability. The group now acts as a policy board and is responsible for business and market development, professionalizing the organization, and providing support and resources to the operations manager.
Day-to-day operations are dynamic and include a wide range of tasks; from running advertisements in the local paper, to training volunteers and booking events, to janitorial duties. These activities are managed by a single full-time operations staff person, and carried out, in part, by a team of volunteers and part-time staff (many of whom are high school students). Retirees form the bulk of the volunteer contingent, and they each contribute three to five hours of volunteer time per week. In addition, more than 600 individuals and families in the community contribute their support in the form of memberships, and involvement in special events and committees.
The Aron Theatre Co-op’s operations and development are supported by a combination of grants, community support, and earned revenue. Small- and large-scale grants have primarily contributed to capital improvements. Even before purchasing the theatre, the co-op received a $20,000 federal grant to develop a business plan, and a $5,000 contribution from the Campbellford Seymour Community Foundation to renovate the front entrance and light up the marquee with state-of-the art energy-efficient LED lights. At that time, the Co-op also applied for funding from the Canadian Co-operative Association to help organize film series, concerts, and other community events of interest; they received a two-year $60,000 grant. This, in combination with an Ontario Trillium Foundation provincial-federal capital improvement grant, and an investment in Aron bonds by the Campbell ford-Seymour Community Foundation and the Municipality of Trent Hills, allowed the Co-op to purchase and install a $96,000 digital film projector and sound system, and upgrade to digital technology.
Community support was instrumental in purchasing the theatre. Thanks to the financial contributions made though fundraisers and bond purchases, within a year and a half of the first feasibility and membership meeting, the co-op raised $125,000. The funds were coupled with a vendor take-back mortgage to purchase the facilities. Earned revenue, primarily from ticket and concession sales, memberships and sponsorships, and on-screen and website advertising sustains ongoing operations. Notably, with regards to the operating budget, the Board of Directors reports that the Aron Theatre Co-op is running at a “modest surplus”.
The Co-op is working towards building and strengthening partnerships with local schools. The objective is to develop regular field-trip events and encourage the use of the Aron Theatre as a teaching opportunity. Some educational events, including the showing of a documentary titled “Bully,” have already seen great success and received positive feedback from local teachers. Through these events, the co-op hopes to contribute to keeping revenue in the community, and creating new local activities for children and youth to engage in.
Impacts & Outcomes Objectives
The Aron Theatre Co-op’s greatest outcomes and impact lie in building social capital and contributing to community development. At the individual level, the Aron Theatre Co-op has given community members a reason for, and a means of, taking responsibility for the continued growth and development of their community; and the preservation of their heritage. The Co-op also creates new opportunities for individuals to contribute, and be recognized for their ideas, interests, and skills. Board members and volunteers, in particular, can now take pride in bringing enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment to the community.
As an emerging social hub, the Co-op also brings community members together. The Co-op has seen an improvement in youth engagement and volunteerism, and is helping to build relationships across generations. In addition, the Aron Theatre Co-op is part of a broader movement in the world of co-ops: it serves as a model not only for the community, but also for other co-ops and social enterprises in Canada and elsewhere.
Next steps for the Aron Theatre Co-op will require a series of capital improvements (i.e. further interior and exterior renovations of the facilities), and intra-organizational development. Sustainability is one of the most pressing long-term concerns for the organization. Long-term priorities include:
- Encouraging ongoing community involvement through bond renewals, volunteer opportunities, new partnerships and special events
- Retaining membership and nurturing members’ connection to the theatre in order to foster a sense of responsibility for the Aron among community members
- Determining how to garner more support for the Aron Theatre Co-op, both as a community hub, and as a transferable social enterprise model
- Monitoring and planning for future technology developments and upgrades
- Diversifying revenue streams
Community support, strong leadership, collaboration, commitment to inclusivity and accessibility, and willingness to innovate has been key to the Aron Theatre Co-op’s success. Some lessons learned from this social enterprise experience include:
- Explore other successful co-op models
- Be realistic about feasibility
- Establish a strong leadership group
- Do not exclude anybody: everybody has strengths
- Seek community feedback
- Share knowledge
The Aron Theatre Co-perative Inc. is an example of a successful rural social enterprise that uses a co-operative model – developed by Campbellford residents, for Campbellford residents. Community members’ personal connections to the Aron Theatre have been critical to this success; the co-op model has given them an opportunity to translate these connections into ownership and investment. Aside from its very practical role as a movie theatre, the Aron Theatre Co-op strengthens community relationships and thereby creates new opportunities for community development. The challenge now is to continue to nurture these relationships, and to grow the Co-op model in Campbellford and beyond.
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