A Guide to Pre-Project Development

There is a great deal of work to be done before the construction of your project begins. The following guide provides an overview of pre-project development, from building a strong shared vision to assembling your project team.



Pre-project development encompasses the important work that needs to take place before your project’s physical development starts. This phase is critical, as you, your funders and partners need to be reassured that the project is in fact deliverable before the diggers start to break ground, or the sledgehammers start tearing down the old internal structures.

Why Invest in Pre-Project Development?

Experience has taught us that proper investment in pre-project development is essential to ensure that we make informed decisions, cultivate and leverage support from a diversity of stakeholders, save money, maximize our investment and ensure long-term financial and operational stability. Careful pre-project development allows us to balance the program with our organizational and financial capacity and increases the likelihood of the long-term success of the project.

What Are the Risks of Cutting Corners in Pre-Project Development? 

Failing to invest properly in pre-project development can have many negative consequences:
  • Lack of a strong shared vision to propel the project
  • Lack of stakeholder buy in
  • Little or no momentum in support or investment
  • Lack of a framework for decision-making
  • Potential conflict and confusion among the project management team

Any of these can lead to mistakes and miscalculations.

First Things First: What is Driving Your Project?

At the outset, you need to understand the underlying dynamics driving the concept or proposed project.  Ask yourself some (seemingly) simple questions:
  • Who (specifically) is driving this concept or proposed project?
  • What is the impetus for it?
  • How are you proceeding?
  • Why are you doing this?
We have found that the impetus for facility projects is often one, or more, of the following factors:
  • A space in search of a use – Sometimes a neighbourhood may have a much-loved old building looking for a new use.
  • A response to crisis or major change – Sometimes a crisis in the arts community can be the driving factor in a project, such as rising property values on workspace or lack of affordable housing for the arts and cultural community.
  • A response to a perceived need – Cultural facilities are often developed in response to a documented or perceived need identified by a neighbourhood, a community of practice or through a public policy initiative.
  • A group in search of a space – An organization may be in search of a building, or a group of individual artists or arts organizations may be looking for opportunities to co-locate.
  • An historic landmark to be saved – Sometimes an historic landmark under threat from demolition or redevelopment provides the focus for a campaign to find a new use for the property or site.
  • A development in search of an arts component – Increasingly, developers are recognizing that a cultural element can potentially add value to their project by animating a new development and attracting other tenants or purchasers.

Quite often, there may be more than one factor driving a project idea. However, if you think that all of these factors are at play in your project, you will need to spend some time establishing priorities and strategic focus.

Click here to read more about this and other factors to consider in site selection in What Should I Consider When Selecting a Site?

Criteria for Success

At the same time you will need to give serious thought to why you are pursuing your project. How does the project idea or the development opportunity fit your overall vision, mission and mandate? If this is your first project, how might it set the tone for your organization and for future developments? Are you happy with this?
When you explore potential projects – from the first indication that a site or property might be suitable or an overture to you from a possible development partner – and throughout the pre-project development process, you will need to make sure that the project represents the best match possible to your organization’s vision, mission, mandate and strategic priorities in order to increase its likelihood of being realized.
Click here to read How Do I Know if a Project is Right for My Organization? and to download the New Project Assessment Matrix Template.

Build a Strong Shared Project Vision  

Artscape often starts working on a project with a great idea and very few – if any – resources. A strong, shared vision is the essential element in the creation and sustainability of cultural facility projects. This is founded in robust research and community engagement. Creating a shared vision is by necessity a collaborative process which draws on the expressed views and circumstances of diverse stakeholders; which responds to the particular identity, assets, resources and needs of a community and reflects the particular economic, social and environmental realities of each neighbourhood.
Once you have got the community engaged in the vision development process, you will need to make sure that you continue to engage with, learn from and maintain dialogue with the local community throughout the ups and downs of the development process. At an early stage you should start thinking about governance models for both the capital development phase and once the project is operational. Both of these phases should include opportunities for community stewardship and involvement in project governance.
Click here to learn about Developing Your Project Vision
Click here to read A Guide to Engaging the Community in Your Project
Click here to watch The Community’s Role in Creating the Artscape Wychwood Barns

Engage Partners and Stakeholders 

Artscape’s projects secure their financial sustainability and public support by ensuring that an ever-widening circle of partners, stakeholders and supporters are engaged in the project from the outset and can contribute to the development of a shared project vision. Building a network of partners, stakeholders and supporters is an ongoing process, but the major focus is during the pre-project development phase.
Artscape sees itself as an intermediary connecting the needs and interests of the community and our tenants with a broader group of stakeholders, investors and partners, helping to organize their ideas and energy into a coherent and sustainable vision. We broker deals and foster relationships between individuals, companies, governments and community members, and align interests between private individuals, private developers, community and economic development officials, financial institutions, cultural policymakers, members of the creative community and politicians. The local municipality is commonly the most important partner for these projects, playing a key role in championing, funding and enabling project development.
Click here to read more about our approach to Collaboration and Partnership.
Click here to read How Can Your City Help.

Define the Principles and Values That Will Guide the Project

You will find it helpful to define the principles and values that will guide the project going forward.
Some of these principles will help frame your approach to your capital development and operational assumptions, the pro forma budgets you develop and the sorts of funding sources you will be able to tap into. Consider the following examples:
  • The project will operate on a cost recovery basis once operational
  • The project will be developed in an environmentally-friendly way
  • The project will be a model of heritage preservation
  • The project will be a new model of multi-tenant centre development
  • The project will be sensitive to neighbourhood concerns about parking, traffic and noise
The values you establish will help you identify the right kinds of tenants, programming and perhaps even development partners as you take the project forward, as well as the way you plan to work with the community, for example:
  • The project will promote excellence in artistic creation
  • The project will celebrate and serve the local community
  • The project will evolve through collaboration, dialogue and engagement
  • The project will contribute to a healthy, sustainable community

Test and Refine the Vision

By this stage of the pre-project development process, Artscape will usually have a well-developed project concept which includes an idea of the location, physical scope and potential capital cost, the business model and operating assumptions and a preliminary vision for the project. This is the stage at which Artscape will typically use a Request for Expressions of Interest (REOI) to stimulate and assess interest in the project. The REOI is a briefing document that may be used as a tool to gauge interest in a project and/or to solicit useful information from interested parties. Artscape has found this tool most useful in helping to develop a vision, mission and mandate for a project.
Click here to find out more about the Request for Expressions of Interest process and to download an REOI Template.

Develop a Compelling Project Narrative

Weave these elements together into a compelling project vision and narrative:
  • What are the imperatives driving the project?
  • How will the project leverage local assets and resources?
  • What are the needs and interests the project will serve and what impact will it have?
  • What are the principles and values that will guide the project?

Assess Project Feasibility 

With a strong vision in place, supported and shared by an engaged local community and a wider circle of partners and stakeholders, your project is starting to become a reality – which means it is time for a reality check. A feasibility study is a realistic appraisal of the proposed initiatives that can:
  • Evaluate and judge a particular proposal (test for feasibility); or
  • Propose a number of options.
This type of study will most likely be undertaken on your behalf by an independent external consultant and is usually required by potential funders. When selecting external consultants through a Request for Qualifications or a Request for Proposals you will need to make clear which you are looking for.
A Feasibility Study may not be required in rare cases – where funders do not require them, when projects are small and straightforward, when the project lead has the internal and demonstrated capacity to analyze feasibility or when a detailed business plan can serve as a substitute.
Click here for a Feasibility Study Guide and a Feasibility Study Template.

Build the Business Plan 

A business plan or financial memorandum will be the final overall project analysis that you will undertake, or commission consultants to undertake on your behalf through an RFQ or RFP selection process. The business plan will become the guiding core document for project development, keeping the Project Development Team on the same page and gaining the confidence of project funders and financiers. The plan will synthesize all elements of project planning – setting objectives, targets, budgets and timelines. It will define roles and responsibilities in the project development and project management teams and outline risk mitigation strategies.
Click here for more information on Capital Budgets.
Click here to find out more about sources of funding and operational budgets.

Assemble the Project Development Team and Start Preliminary Design and Development

By this point you have already invested a substantial amount of time and, quite probably, money, too, in the pre-development work. It is finally time to transition towards project development. Most of the members of your project development team have likely been chosen and you may have already selected an architect who has been involved in some of the vision development, feasibility study and business planning stages. You may now be ready to identify or even hire a project manager to manage the development process and work with the design development team to keep the process on track, on budget and on time.
Careful pre-project planning work will ideally result in fewer surprises, mistakes and conflicts when the diggers begin breaking ground on your project’s physical space.
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