Rolling out the welcome mat

Nancy MacPhee
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College of Piping inviting new contributors, hoping to attract new students in effort to tackle $400,000 debt

SUMMERSIDE — Karen Hatcher has the welcome mat dusted off and rolled out.

College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts’ executive director Karen Hatcher and board chair Joe McGuire stand outside the Summerside location. The college is hoping to bring down its $400,000 debt and improve facilities as part of a five-year plan.

Hatcher, executive director at the College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts, wants everyone — no matter their musical ability or age — to feel welcome within its doors.

In doing so, she hopes to attract not only students interested in learning the Celtic performing arts, but volunteers and new contributors who will help bring down the college’s $400,000 debt.

It’s just one of the initiatives in a recently devised five-year plan the college’s board of directors is using to ensure the the facility's growth well into the future.

When Hatcher, who grew up in the Summerside area, returned to the city in February 2010 to take over as the college’s executive director, its finances were a mess and morale was at an all-time low.

The college had been struggling in the wake of the passing in 2008 of its beloved long-time executive director, Scott MacAulay.

“It was at a low ebb to put it delicately,” said board chairman Joe McGuire.

Hatcher, armed with a positive attitude, knowledge of piping, the city and her marketing and business experience, immediately worked to turn things around.

“I look at everything with a very positive perspective,” she said. “I began making changes, physically, in the building. This room used to be a collection of desks and filing cabinets, which I moved out and brought the boardroom in. I changed a lot of the classroom settings. We’ve done a lot of painting and touch ups so staff are embracing the spaces in which they are working.”

“The welcome mat went outside saying that everybody is welcome and everybody is needed.”

With the exception of drumming instructor Chris Coleman, an entirely new staff was hired, from custodians to instructors.

Under the leadership of JamesMcHattie, the college’s director of education, instructors in drumming, piping, highland and step dance were challenged to set goals and to engage parents and students.

“The biggest resource at the college is the staff that is in the building,” said Hatcher. “Putting together the team of instructors that we currently have has been the biggest significant accomplishment.”

Hatcher’s approach worked, with more than 300 students now taking classes at the college’s flagship location in Summerside and satellite locations in Cornwall and Charlottetown.

Even students from as far away as Colorado are taking bagpiping lessons with McHattie and his wife, Kylie, via Skype.

The college also boasts award-winning and world-class pipe bands and dancers.

In July 2011, its Grade 4 and Grade 5 bands competed at the North America Championships and the Grade 4 band walked away with top prize while the Grade 5 band, its first time at the event, was named Best Pipe Corps for North America.

This past summer, the College of Piping Grade 3 Band travelled to Scotland to compete in the World Pipe Band Championships and placed fifth.

And, last year, more than 15,000 people came through the college’s doors, either to take in a show or visit the gift shop.

“One of the smartest things that this board has done is hire Karen,” said McGuire. “She’s turned the whole thing around.”

But, he admitted, there is still a great deal that needs to be done.

A close look at the college’s books earlier this year revealed a $400,000 deficit.

With total operating costs of the college climbing up to $750,000 annually, which includes staging the annual Summerside Highland Gathering and Highland Storm, the focus now is on lowering that deficit, generating more income and, eventually, improving facilities at the college, which is set to celebrate its 25th year in 2014.

“After Scott died we went through some pretty tumultuous years and incurring debts where not much thought was put into how those debts were going to be paid,” said McGuire. “No matter how it came to be, it’s there and we have to deal with it.”

Earlier this year, for the first time in its history, a three-year operating grant was secured from the provincial government. This year, the college received $100,000, which has already spent on salaries and operational costs. Next year the college will receive $75,000 and the following year $50,000.

It’s a welcome boost, said McGuire.

“It comes in awfully handy given our present circumstances,” said the board chair. “We hope to be much better off financially at the end of that three-year period than we are now. It was crucial funding.”

Long-time supporters Doug and Debbie Hall have been integral to the college’s success by paying for all piping and drumming lessons for students aged eight to 18 who live on P.E.I., no matter their background.

“The college would be significantly different without their support,” said Hatcher.

McGuire added, “Or maybe non-existent. Their contribution is crucial.”

It is more contributors like the Halls that the college needs to stay afloat since fundraising — which includes revenues from Highland Storm and the Highland Gathering — accounts for 65 per cent of its revenues. Only 17 per cent comes from tuition.

“We have the Robbie Burns Fundraiser. We’re now making some money on the Highland Games for the first time in quite a few years. We turned a profit last June,” said McGuire. “We’re incorporated as a charitable institution where we can accept donations from the general public or businesses. We can issue tax donations based on those donations.”

It’s more of those donations — from corporations and businesses — that the college is now going after.

With the amphitheatre — key to the college’s operation — in need of renovations or an entire replacement, reducing the debt and generating more money is now more important than ever, said McGuire.

“We’ve made overtures to private individuals and we are making a list of patrons that we are planning on meeting with over the next few years. If we don’t, the infrastructure we have is at a point where it needs to be replaced within the next two to three years,” he added. “We have to put forth an effort to get our finances in order, survive on a daily basis and then still reduce our debt in order to be in a position to expand the college or replace the infrastructure in the future.”

Also part of the five-year plan is a rejuvenation of the gift shop, the establishment of an alumni database, which may result in more contributions, and the sale of a five-acre property owned by the college.

McGuire and Hatcher are confident that the community, as they have in the past, will be there to help and support the college.

“We’re reaching out past Summerside,” said McGuire. “I would like to see this place survive. I think it is crucial to the area here, both education wise in the Celtic arts and in the tourism aspect in attracting people to Western P.E.I.”



- College of Piping began as the Prince County Caledonia Club, which was incorporated Sept. 1, 1989.

- It is currently working on a database leading up to the anniversary, which already includes more than 3,000 names, many past students.

- College’s main events are the Summerside Highland Gathering, which returns June 28-30, 2013, and Highland Gathering, which will have Ryan MacNeill of the Barra McNeills return as artistic director.

- College relies on a pool of more than 150 volunteers.

- Year round, there are six full-time staff and seven part-time.

- In the summer, an additional 31 staff are added as summer students and cast of Highland Storm

- Its Robbie Burns Fundraiser goes Jan. 26 at Credit Union Place.

- For more information, visit








Organizations: College of Piping and Celtic Performing Arts, College of Piping Grade, Grade 4 Prince County Caledonia Club Union Place

Geographic location: Summerside, Cornwall, Charlottetown Colorado Scotland Western P.E.I.

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Recent comments

    December 25, 2012 - 09:03

    When you have the Halls paying for all students on PEI and the provincial government giving $100,000. a year and you have $400,000. of debt, it suggests to me that management and the board are doing a lousy job of running the business.With only 17% of revenues from tuition, I would say that is a significant problem. The challenge here is to grow the business finances and stop worrying about moving offices and painting walls. It looks like Hatcher is more interested in creating creature comforts than becoming self sufficient.Stop looking for handouts and do something yourselves. Don't sit by waiting for someone to bail you out. This is not Ottawa, Joe, this is the reality.

    December 24, 2012 - 11:48

    Welcome mat to the most "Exclusive" place on the island - "exclusive" meaning non-inclusive. You get tons on money including PNP (aka Celtic Promotions), City, Province, Feds, Doug Hall, and ACOA and yet the kids of board members and old friends get all the attention and support. Your dancers all quit last year because you don't give a darn about them and don't even have a qualified teacher. You took top dollar for their lessons and they learned 3 steps all year. Why not just admit you are in fact, the College of Piping only - no longer Celtic Performing Arts. All your eggs are in one basket and Doug Hall's deep pockets aren't so deep anymore. I used to pay and support you and hold you in high esteem Now your elite attitude is digging you a hole so deep you can't get out. What a shame. When a few who think they are royalty call all the shots.....that's what you get. Heart breaking, but it's been coming for a long time. dare you to post this...time to drop the veil and reveal the fiscal abuse. Best of luck Karen you have a tough job

    • blessed by the cop
      December 27, 2012 - 15:40

      Lets be truthful hear only a hand full of dancers quit the cop to go else where when they were not winning competitions as they thought they should be. There are still many dancers with the cop.