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Elkford celebrates grand opening of conference centrePosted: June 25, 2012

Consider it an example of what can be done when there is a will.

The collective will of a municipal government and a dogged mayor; the will of a community and the will of supporters and financial backers all merged to create the inertia and drive to see the District of Elkford become the latest town in the Kootenays to open a brand new community hall. (The official name is Community Conference Centre.)

Mayor Dean McKerracher, whose drive and vision were central in the establishment of the new 18,000 square foot, $6.4 million facility in downtown Elkford, was joined by key backers, community members, council and district staff June 21 in a grand opening celebration of the new, already-award-winning hall, which is home to a beautiful banquet hall, visitor information centre, play school, shiny commercial kitchen and multi-purpose meeting rooms.

Along with Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development Ida Chong and Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett, McKerracher cut the ribbon to the hall on a rare, bright, sunny afternoon. They were joined by dignitaries from Columbia Basin Trust, Teck Coal, Structurlam Products Ltd. and about 100 onlookers standing on a parking lot that smelled of fresh blacktop. Ktunaxa Nation representatives could not attend the opening due to prior National Aboriginal Day commitments.

The spacious Teck Hall received its first gathering during the grand opening, with a host of speeches, followed by tours and a community barbecue.

“I’m in awe every time I get to see this building,” McKerracher said.

Relatively fresh from a recent health scare, the mayor’s voice cracked when he thanked MLA Bennett for his help.

“If I get a little bit emotional, I’m sorry, but it’s an emotional day for me,” he said.

McKerracher recognized his past and current councils for their work and explained how the district arrived at this point.

“This has been a vision of council’s since 2003. Councilor Turcotte, Coun. Tomych and myself tried to convince council at the time that we should buy this old school that sat up here, on these grounds – with no success,” he began. “In 2004 we finally convinced them that we should start negotiations with the school board because it had been closed for four years.  It was getting damaged inside as well as outside and becoming an unsightly premises. It has six and a half acres of land, on which this building sits on and the soccer field is included, too.

“We went through negotiations for two years with very little success. In 2006 I enlisted our MLA Bill Bennett to help,” he said, noting that Elkford Chief Administrative Officer Corien Speaker had also been working hard on the project.

That year McKerracher attended the Union of British Columbia Municipalities annual conference aware that the school board wanted $3 million for the old 33,000 square foot school and property.

While at the conference in Vancouver, McKerracher and Speaker met with the Minister of Education “and tried to convince her (Minister Joyce Bond) that they sell us this school because it was just costing them money to maintain on a daily to yearly basis. The actual original offer was $150,000. They laughed at us and said, ‘well, you have to give more than that.’”

After further discussions, the Ministry of Education suggested Elkford offer $175,000. McKerracher said he called the municipal office soon after and a cheque for $175,000 was delivered to the school board office the next morning.

“That evening, at a wine and cheese party, Minister Bond came up to me and congratulated the district,” Mckerracher said, having to pause. “We were successful in purchasing a school and property for $175,000.”

The district took over the building in 2006 and luckily insured it.

“Unfortunately, on August 11, 2007, the building was destroyed by fire.  And I wasn’t here – I was away,” McKerracher said chuckling. “So you can’t blame me! It was unknown causes. They were putting in wiring from the old building to the new building – there were old parts and new parts together. Consequently, we ended up with $3.6 million from insurance funds and so we made a few bucks on our $175,000. With the support of other Teck Coal and other donators, CBT, we ended up with this building,” he said to loud applause.

“Waiting for this building to get the doors open was like waiting for my wife to deliver our babies. It’s been terrible. I even lost a couple of hairs again today,” McKerracher cracked.  “I’m very proud of the efforts put forth by councils, staff and by residents, as well as the various partners and organizations that helped to make today possible.”

On several occasions, McKerracher emotionally expressed his gratitude for all project supporters, pausing at times to rack his brain in order to not leave anyone out.

Minister Chong said she had been admiring the building’s wood design. “How versatile! This is going to be a very, very well used banquet hall, I assure you because of the way it is structured.”

Government money provided to Elkford came from Towns For Tomorrow grant funding, Chong said, noting that Bill Bennett was the first MLA to approach her and ask “how can get I get my hands on some of those dollars? As he always is. It was a new program designed to help small, rural communities and, obviously, Elkford qualifies for that.”

Towns for Tomorrow recognized “one size does not fit all,” Chong said, adding, that instead of municipalities having to find one-third of the money for an infrastructure project, all they had to do was find 20%, the province would provide the other 80 “up to a maximum of $400,000.”

Chong concluded by saying, “kudos to you Mr. Mayor and your council for making sure your dream does become a reality. Clearly, it will be a hub where people will come together for significant milestone events. When you have a place where you can come together families are strengthened and families feel united and that’s why projects like this matter.”

Bennett said he didn’t have enough time to be able to thank all the people, businesses and organizations that helped make the hall a reality.

“I’m going to focus first on one person. Without his work, his vision, his dream and his relentless efforts we wouldn’t be sitting here today. Absolutely no question that without Dean McKerracher, we would not be here today,” he said, drawing loud applause.

“I’m really proud to call Dean a friend, so there is a special sense that I have today being here and watching him and his wife Joanne, who is always by Dean’s side. It’s wonderful when a community comes together on something,” he said.

Bennett singled out the Columbia Basin Trust for its help in the project and the work it continues to do in the Basin. And he praised Teck for its significant role.

“In many ways this is the house that coal built,” he said. “We wouldn’t be here today – Elkford probably wouldn’t exist as a community if it weren’t for the coal mining industry. It would be pretty tough, and Dean I am sure you agree, without the large donation that Teck made” for the district to complete the project.

“It’s important for us to every now and again just recognize how fortunate we are that we have, first of all an industry that is doing so well, and secondly that we have a particular company that sees the value in investing in our communities,” Bennett said, listing a host of projects that Teck has helped out, such as the Kootenay Child Development Centre and Koocanusa boat launch.

“We should celebrate that,” he said.

Teck was represented at the opening by Cal McDougall, who is also a former District of Sparwood mayor.

“On behalf of Teck Coal I’d like to congratulate the District of Elkford for the vision of putting the building together. Without people like Dean McKerracher and council, Corien Speaker and administrative staff, things like this just don’t happen. It takes a lot of work. Teck is very proud to help and support the communities,” he said.

As for the new facility, McDougall said Teck recognized the vision Elkford has and wanted to help out.

“Selfishly, it’s a place we can use for some of our Christmas parties!” he stated, earning happy applause.

Speaking on behalf of Columbia Basin Trust was Elk Valley board director Cindy Gallinger.

“We are thrilled for the residents of Elkford,” she said, offering congratulations to all involved.

“This project is a wonderful example of a community responding to the needs of its residents,” she said.

Structurlam Products Ltd. president Bill Downing, originally from the East Kootenay, said his company, now 50-years-old, has been honoured to be a part of the project.

“This building represents a major first for us,” he said, “And that’s the first use of our new CLT (cross-laminated timber) panels in a vertical or wall application.”

He explained why “that is such a big deal. It’s really going to change the way large wood buildings are manufactured or fabricated in the future,” he said, noting “it won’t be long before you start seeing eight or ten storey buildings made with cross timber panels. It’s a really big deal for us and the industry as a whole.”

McKerracher, closing the speech session of the grand opening, added he wanted to thank the nearby residents for their patience during construction.

“They lived through it and now they get to look at a beautiful building,” he said.

The new building fits in with Elkford’s recent successful efforts at re-branding, McKerracher told the audience. “This community centre, to me, is the icing on the cake. The facility now provides Elkford with the space and capability to take our town to the next level. We are going to market ourselves as the premier wedding destination of the Kootenays,” he said, referring to a suggestion made by outgoing CAO Speaker.

“We’ll be able to have large functions – like Teck Christmas parties,” McKerracher said. “It’s the only building of its kind in the Elk Valley. In fact, it’s the only building of its kind in North America.”

District staff pose for a group photo.

District administrative staff seemed to beam through the course of the ceremonies – relieved and pleased with the outcome of their efforts.

“Wow, I can’t believe we are here. If you asked me a month ago, I probably would have said ‘it’s not going to happen,’” remarked Gerrity Stanley, district director of leisure services.”With this facility, the opportunities for Elkford are endless and the community will be able to relish in them for many, many years to come.”

Joining in on the day’s celebrations was City of Fernie Mayor Mary Giuliano, District of Sparwood Mayor Lois Halco, along with councilors Andrew MacIntyre and Margaret McKie, Regional District of East Kootenay board chair and Electoral Area C director Rob Gay, Electoral Area A director Mike Sosnowski, Elkford councilors, School District No. 5 superintendant Bill Gook and numerous project backers and organizations.

Adding to the fun was the most recent donation to the project – $10,000 from East Kootenay Community Credit Union.

Please see our accompanying photo display for a tour of the day’s festivities and the new hall.

Ian Cobb/e-KNOW

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