Value Kelowna's heritage past

Central Okanagan Heritage Society president Don Knox (left) and executive director Janice Henry at the Brent
Central Okanagan Heritage Society president Don Knox (left) and executive director Janice Henry at the Brent's Mill Heritage Park in Kelowna.
— image credit: Doug Farrow/Contributor

Built heritage, in Western Canada, is dramatically different from that in Eastern Canada, and even farther removed from the ancient buildings in European and Asian capitals—but that doesn’t make our old buildings any less important to preserve.

We don’t have many of our oldest buildings left, and none of those are old in the sense that European buildings are, but they are still part of our history and their low numbers make it even more vital that those few be protected.

As the oldest industrial heritage site in the province’s interior, Brent’s Grist Mill in Kelowna is the top priority city-owned property for restoration—and there’s some need for haste, before the buildings deteriorate further.

But, there’s no money to have the work done.

Funding for heritage restoration from senior governments has completely dried up in recent years, notes Kelowna Coun. Robert Hobson.

“We have concerns regarding our heritage sites. There hasn’t been much progress on them,” he admitted.

In 2009 gaming grants for heritage restoration suddenly stopped, leaving the Central Okanagan Heritage Society $18,000 in debt because the board had banked on the grant—one they had been receiving annually for 20 years—and the year was nearly over before it was told there would be no grant that year.

“That was a key item in our budget,” explained Don Knox, president of the COHS. “We went from having surpluses to a deficit.”

The society’s goal is the preservation of our built heritage, and right now the focus is on Benvoulin—largely because the 120-year-old building with the Gothic Revival-style vaulted arches and steeple—needs re-roofing, along with some other expensive repairs.

The society rescued the building just as it was about to be used for fire practise and rebuilt it with the help of grants from all levels of government, as well as from local businesses and residents and thousands of volunteer hours, more than 30 years ago.

Today the idea is that its upkeep is paid for by rental of the facility for weddings and meetings.

The society also owns McIver House which it restored and which is used by caretakers for Benvoulin as it is on the same property.

But first the society completed the initial restoration of Guisachan House in the late 1980s, and McDougall House, which was moved to the Guisachan Heritage Park site in 1984, when it was nearly 100 years old.

The city owns Guisachan Heritage Park, but the society owns McDougall House, which is located in the park.

Guisachan House, the milk shed, Brent’s Grist Mill, the dairy barn and Fleming House in that park, are just five of 19 heritage properties owned by the city, many of which are in pretty good shape and in regular use, but several of which are not.

The second priority for restoration, according to Randy Cleveland, director of infrastructure planning for the city, is St. Aidan’s Church in Rutland and third is the Surtees Barn near Bellevue Creek in the Mission.

The other city-owned heritage properties are an interesting mix, and include the Ritz Cafe, believed to be the city’s first ‘house of ill repute,’ Cameron House, Knowles House, the tobacco barn on the Thomson farm, Central Elementary, the old Glenn Avenue School, the Memorial Arena, the Water Street Fire Hall, Rotary Centre for the Arts, the Kelowna Memorial Park Cemetery and the Imhoff Tank at the wastewater treatment facility.

Four are on the national heritage registry—Brent’s Grist Mill, Central Elementary, Water Street Fire Hall and the Laurel Packinghouse—while Guisachan House is in the process.

The city has just finished doing a $2.5-million renovation to the Laurel, which houses the B.C. Wine Industry Museum and the Orchard Industry Museum, as well as expensive repairs to Guisachan House after fire did severe damage a few years ago.

It received a grant of $1.1 million towards the work on the Laurel from Heritage Canada—the largest grant ever awarded west of the Rockies, noted Cleveland.

He says the city has a conditional assessment on each building and what it would cost for restoration and there will be discussions with the city’s heritage community about what to do next.

“Some adaptive re-use is needed so we will look for people who might be interested in using these buildings. We need partners to move forward, although there is some seed money for joint ventures,” he said.

He would not release those estimates for restoration until that report has gone to council.

A revenue stream is needed in order for heritage buildings to be maintained, he noted, whether that’s as a rental meeting facility, a gift shop, an office or a restaurant.

That’s one of six criteria developed in conjunction with the Community Heritage Commission to prioritize investment in heritage assets.

The other criteria are that a property be rare and at risk; accessible to the public; have potential to provide a service; be located inside an existing town centre “so it says something to people’s hearts when they walk by. We want heritage to be a living piece of people’s lives,” explained Cleveland.

Finally, it should represent the city’s founders, such as agriculture or lumber.

Deterioration concerns

Knox says he is concerned that some of the city-owned heritage properties are just sitting there, getting older, and deteriorating.

“They could get to the point where they’re not usable,” he said.

Although the society used to work in partnership with the city on heritage properties, now the city has taken over and everything has to go to tender, which will cost more, he added.

“I don’t feel we’re being used to our potential. We feel we could be more of an asset to the city. We would welcome a chance to sit down and work out what our best role is. These assets should be used, like the concerts the society held at Benvoulin Heritage Church prior to Christmas,” Knox said.

COHS executive-director Janice Henry says money is the big issue.

“We can hardly keep our lights on,” she noted.

She estimates $70,000 in repairs on Benvoulin Heritage Church are needed.

In order to raise money for restoration, Henry said it takes hours to put grant applications together and she only works part-time for the society.

“There’s no garden of heritage grants we can pluck from,” she said.

Rick Goodacre is executive director of Heritage B.C. He says both the city and heritage society are members, and his sense is that Kelowna has one of the better heritage programs in B.C.

However, where heritage at the municipal level was driven by the province in the 1980s and ’90s, today heritage seems to have lost all its provincial support.

“At some point, downhill slides must reach bottom, and we seem to have done that in the past two years. Heritage B.C. lost all of its provincial support a couple of years ago and we are hanging on by the skin of our teeth, which is…not a good long-term strategy,” Goodacre commented.

He’s hopeful the downhill slide has reached bottom, but at present, local governments and communities are on their own when it comes to maintaining or restoring heritage properties, he said. “This makes it much tougher for councils and regional boards to meet their commitments to heritage conservation, or take on new ones,” he said.

Heritage B.C. is calling on the province to adopt the provincial heritage strategy, restore the heritage branch budget, resolve the Heritage Properties question, restore community support and invest in the Heritage Legacy Fund.


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