Chilliwack council voted 6-1 Tuesday to demolish the old Paramount Theatre building in downtown Chilliwack rather than restore it.
They rejected the idea to run it as a not-for-profit theatre by the Friends of the Chilliwack Paramount, citing the lack of sufficient financial backing and insurance coverage.
Only Coun. Jason Lum voted against the wrecking ball, saying he would have preferred to direct staff to come up with a business plan for restoration.
“I have to disagree with the option of tearing it down,” he said.
Accepting the offer to demolish the building from Chilliwack Economic Partners Corporation (CEPCO) came this week amid some fierce hope by supporters that the 1949 theatre would be saved.
Although city staff recommended that council reject the proposal to save the dilapidated building, it also recommended the city “develop a business plan for the remediation, restoration and long term management of the Paramount Theatre building as a civic facility,” according to the staff report.
But CAO Peter Monteith clarified at the council meeting that the reason why staff recommended creating a business plan for restoration and remediation, was to “outline the only two viable courses of action” the city had, with the other being demolition.
Two “request for proposals” were conducted by city officials in the past year to gauge the level of interest, and neither resulted in any compliant applicants coming forth, he said, showing “there is no viable commercial use” for the historic building.
But in the end, there was no appetite on council to spend what would amount to “a significant” amount of taxpayer money to save it.
Although it could be argued that technically, taxpayer money will be used when CEPCO pays for the demolition, the fact remains that CEPCO is a separately incorporated entity with the City of Chilliwack as its sole shareholder.
It’s a question of economics.
“The city could put $300,000 or $400,000 into refurbishing the building, but it wouldn’t end there,” said Coun. Ken Huttema after the meeting. He was the councillor who put the motion to demolish on the table, which would cost about the same amount as the repairs.
“The Friends of the Paramount group did all they could to drum up support, and they had every opportunity. But the business plan was not a business plan. They couldn’t turn that passion into dollars,” said Huttema.
Coun. Chuck Stam said that he too would have “liked to have dreamed the dream” of saving the Paramount, but couldn’t justify it in the face of the road budget deficit and other areas needing attention.
“This is a cold, hard truth,” said Coun. Chuck Stam at the meeting. “It’s absolutely not easy but we need to think big and into the future.”
Friends of the Paramount gathered outside council chambers after the meeting, surprised by the decision, trying to regroup.
Group member Laura Reid was angry and wanted it known that it wasn’t true that their business plan was based on spending taxpayers’ dollars, but rather cash pledges and donations in kind.
“I’m shocked,” said group member Candace Brown.
Group members had been feeling optimistic given the staff report recommendation.
“I’m stunned they made the choice to tear it down,” she said.
The group’s proposal was rejected because of lack of financial support from a bank and insurance, but these privileges aren’t afforded to not-for-profit societies, just to property owners.
Group member Sam Waddington said he was very disappointed in the decision.
“It means they chose economics over saving our heritage, and our history, which is so important,” he said. “They ignored the biggest outpouring of civic engagement Chilliwack has seen in a long time. I don’t think we’re done.”
But Coun. Huttema said after the meeting that he believes the option of demolition, with the hope of land assembly and eventual redevelopment of the site, is preferable.
“We’ve gone beyond new canopies and paint colours,” he said at the meeting.
Demolishing the Paramount represents a “stronger and bolder vision” for a truer and more lasting revitalization for that part of the downtown core, and more importantly it fits in with the Downtown Implementation plan, he said.
“It might be a painful step for some, but I would encourage staff and the BIA to look for some short-terms uses for it,” Huttema said.
“We don’t want to see another parking lot, except in the short-term, on the pathway to bigger and better things.”
Mayor Sharon Gaetz cited the “sheer economic and the risk factor” in council’s vote for demolition.
“This was a tough one,” she said. “I think the majority of people who came out today were hoping somehow there was a hail mary. I want to say a huge thank you for trying, but it looks like it won’t be working this time.”