Move forward to protect Chilliwack heritage

Chilliwack has at its disposal the tools necessary to encourage heritage conservation in the downtown.

In the end, Chilliwack city council was given a straightforward choice: Accept CEPCO’s free offer to demolish the Paramount Theatre, or use taxpayer money to pay for its reclamation in the hope that some future use might be found.

This council – true to its mantra to spend only what money it has – accepted CEPCO’s offer.

To any who have followed the long journey of Chilliwack’s plan to revitalize its downtown, the move should not come as a big surprise. Despite talk of a “Paramount district” in the city’s “Downtown land use and development plan,” the city made clear the Landing area would be the downtown’s entertainment district. It might entertain a private proposal for the Paramount, but it certainly wasn’t going to pay for it, especially after the $23 million taxpayers spent on the Cultural Centre.

When council agreed to provide more time to a group hoping the save the building, it repeated its promise to spend no money on repairs to the building.

It kept that promise.

Reaction fell along the traditional fault lines: The decision was either a prudent use of taxpayer dollars, or a heartless rejection of Chilliwack’s historic past.

The reality is more complex.

The preservation of our historic buildings must begin long before they are shuttered. Unfortunately, that rarely occurs. Instead, they are allowed to deteriorate to a point where they are beyond repair. The Empress Hotel, once a jewel in the city’s downtown, is now a vacant lot. The Paramount Theatre, left with no heat and a crumbling roof when it was ‘gifted’ to the city, faces the same future.

Not every building in the downtown has suffered that fate. Renovations to the Royal Cafe and the Wellington – housed in the former Royal Bank building – show what is possible.

The city has at its disposal the tools to make this more common. Indeed, the downtown development plan – approved by this council – identifies heritage conservation as one of its objectives and lists policies that would make it happen.

But it will take more than words on a page. If there is a political desire to preserve Chilliwack’s heritage, this council must move swiftly to implement the policies it has already approved. It can begin with: “Update the existing inventory of recognized heritage buildings…”

Unfortunately, there soon will be one less building to add to that list.