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Close-up: Setting fire to history

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In the late 1920s, some of Westbank's approximately 250 registered voters decided the community was in need of a central meeting place to host various public events.

The idea was popular and a fundraising dance held in Kelowna collected $1,360 in donations, surpassing organizers' $1,000 goal.

Community members worked together in 1929 and 1930 to construct a communal building before an official grand opening took place April 30, 1930.

The hall, which fronted Main Street at the time, was run by the Community Club and was well-used by citizens for a wide range of events in the years that followed. But it began to show its age in the 1970s and was in desperate need of renovations.

After debating whether or not to completely knock the building down, the Westbank Lions Club realized the building had been sturdily built; therefore, they decided to remodel the facility rather than completely start from scratch. In 1980 they jacked up the hall, moved it back about 100 feet to its current location to allow for parking and began renovations, which were completed in 1982.

For 83 years the building has seen laughter at dances, smiles at weddings and tears at funerals.

So it was understandable to see members of the public showing their emotions Sunday morning as flames threatened their community's meeting place.

And for most, those emotions only grew as the week went on and investigators revealed that the fire was started on purpose.

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Residents can still be seen stopping to stare at the burned Westbank Lions Community Centre Thursday morning. Some of them point, one shakes her head.

Gordon Ficke, president of both the Westbank Museum and the Historic Westbank Association, says Sunday morning's news came as a shock to him.

"It's a landmark for Westbank—an important one," says Ficke.

He recalls memories from Westbank's 110th birthday celebration, which took place at the community centre just three weeks ago.

The all-day event ran alongside the Westbank Farmers' Market and featured live entertainment, children's activities, historic displays, as well as a dinner and a dance.

West Kelowna Mayor Doug Findlater describes the Lions' Hall as "where our community meets."

"There are a lot of sad faces," says Findlater, who cut his long weekend at his cabin short to deal with the aftermath of Sunday's fire.

"There are lots of memories for people…I've been there hundreds, if not thousands, of times."

The fact that investigators suspect arson was the cause of the blaze deepens the cut for residents, adds the mayor.

"Why would anyone do that deliberately?…something that would take away (a building) so highly valued by everyone in the community."

The second major impact, Findlater explains, is the loss of valuable community space, which is hard to come by in West Kelowna.

With the exception of two Saturdays, the Westbank Lions Community Centre was booked solid until Christmas.

The District of West Kelowna has been working with the Westbank Lions Club to share information regarding potential available spaces to help place those who were scheduled to use the hall.

Findlater encourages those who are aware of space available at churches, camps, hotels, schools or other venues to contact the district.

Along with all of the temporary users, Westbank Lions Community Centre was also home to several user groups.

The Okanagan Boys and Girls Clubs' Westside Youth Centre, located in the building's lower level, is closed for the immediate future.

The centre provides drop-in recreation, meals and snacks, reconnect counselling and employment services.

"A lot of the youth referred to it as their second home," says Kristy Butterworth, director of the Westside Youth Centre.

"There are not a lot of places available on the Westside for youth to hang out at."

Butterworth says 40 to 50 kids utilize the facility every day during the winter months and the centre sees an average of 100 different individuals per month.

"It's everything from somebody who is there for recreation to people who may be homeless and are accessing their food and things like that. So it really varies."

Staff of the youth centre are providing meals in the United Church parking lot daily from 3 to 6 p.m.

The district is currently working with youth centre staff to find a makeshift location for users of the centre.

The Westside Storefront school has also been impacted by the fire; students are being asked to report to Central School at 1825 Richter Street in Kelowna.

The Canadian Red Cross health equipment loan depot, located within the community centre, has temporarily suspended its operations as well. Clients looking to pick up or drop off equipment can do so at other Red Cross locations, including 124 Adam Rd. in Kelowna from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday.

The Westbank Farmers' Market, which has taken place every Saturday in the Lions Hall parking lot throughout the summer, will be moved to the Westridge Mall parking lot for the final two Saturdays, Sept. 7 and 14.

Rick Hebner, past president of the Westbank Lions Club, suggests Sunday's fire was a "worst nightmare" come true for members of the Lions club.

"It's something we talked about often: What would happen if? Never in a million years (did we) think it would happen," says Hebner.

He notes it was not uncommon to see people loitering around the hall, regardless of the hour of day or night.

"Because of where we are, we have a lot of people—both young kids and older people—who are sort of down on their luck, with no other place to sort of hang out.

"They're out there smoking. We've caught a bunch of people out there in the early morning drinking who we called the RCMP on."

While the front of the hall appears to be in bad shape, firefighting efforts kept the blaze from significantly damaging the rear portion of the building.

Whether or not the building will be repaired or completely rebuilt is yet to be determined.

"We were through (Tuesday) with an insurance adjuster; at this point we have no clue because it's still way too early.

"It's just a matter of waiting for word from the insurance company as to the way ahead and what's going to happen."

According to Hebner the building and its contents were insured for $3.5 million.

One rumour that has emerged through various media reports throughout the week is that the Lions Club may consider partnering with the district as West Kelowna searches for a site for a new municipal hall.

Hebner says those reports are unfounded.

"There are no plans for the district to get involved at all," says Hebner.

"We will not be going in any partnership with the district…for some reason that rumour keeps generating itself."

On March 13, the district launched a market sounding exercise to gauge marketplace interest and explore potential partnerships regarding the development of a new municipal hall.

"We're evaluating four or five options, both public and private in the downtown area," says Findlater.

"But there's certainly no plan to sit down and talk about any kind of a partnership (with the Lions club) related to construction."

He adds the district has not begun to budget for a future municipal hall and the item is not currently part of the district's 10-year capital plan.

***

It's difficult to fathom what may have been going through the mind of the individual who set fire to the historic Westbank Lions Community Centre Sunday morning.

Perhaps he/she wasn't aware of the history surrounding the building, or the countless memories the community has attached to it.

"It may have been a thoughtless act by someone," guesses the mayor.

"The fire was reported around 8:30 in the morning. What that means to me is that it was probably light out. Maybe somebody saw something that would be helpful—they should contact the RCMP."

Westbank Museum vice president Poppy Angus and Ficke agree that, if possible, the building should be restored rather than demolished or completely rebuilt.

"The community reaction has been devastation…it's been such a focal point in the community for all of these years," says Angus.

Ficke adds: "It would be really nice if they made the decision that they can fix the building and restore it.

"It's where everything comes together."

wpaterson@kelownacapnews.com

Twitter: @PatersonWade

 

 

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