Demolition up for debate

City council has voted by an 8-1 margin to begin the process of demolishing the Full Gospel Outreach Centre (pictured) at 925 Central Avenue. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Mike Horn and his family have operated Fresh Air Experience at the same location on Central Avenue since 1979.

He speaks passionately about the positive changes, great location and warm business community in Prince Albert’s downtown area. However, there are some challenges, and one of them comes in the form of an old brick building across the street at 925 Central Ave.

Up until at least the mid-’90s it was home to the C.B. Department Store, with a row of well-maintained apartments on the upper floor. Today the apartments are still there, but the store is long gone.

“It’s a beautiful old building, and when the C.B. Department Store was in there it was a very viable retail location,” Horn says. “Just due to economic and family changes, (the owners) sold it.”

In place of the racks of clothing and other goods is an altar, sound system and rows upon row of chairs. A Pentecostal minister owns the property and runs an outreach centre for drug and alcohol users, the homeless, and even a few gang members.

As of Tuesday, it’s also up for demolition. Prince Albert City Council voted 8-1 in favour of sending the file to the city solicitor to kick-start the process.

Mayor Greg Dionne, who brought forward the motion, told council the building is a “sore spot” on the downtown that’s driving down property values and sucking up police resources. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1, 2017, police and bylaw officers were called to the property 255 times, and the problem seems to be getting worse. In 2016, during that same nine-month period, there were 193 calls for service. In 2015, there were 126.

“It detracts from the downtown and it hasn’t been getting any better since it’s been brought to my attention,” says Dionne, who first learned about the problem roughly a year ago.

There is no timeline for how soon the building can be knocked down, although if previous experience with Minto Apartments is any indication, it could be years. Working through the legal system will take time, and Dionne says council might need to change a few bylaws to help move the process along.

Dionne is sad it came to this point, especially since owner Vern Temple is ministering to people in need. Still, he’s confident it’s the right thing to do.

“I understand what his pastoral mission is and that’s to help, but the problem is a pastor doesn’t make a good landlord,” Dionne says. “The living conditions there are not to standard and it just attracts the wrong kind of people downtown.”

Local business owners have already had several meetings with the owners, along with Dionne and Prince Albert Police Chief Troy Cooper.

As a citizen, Mike Horn says he’s not looking to pick on anyone, but he’s concerned about how much it costs to have police show up at the building so many times. He isn’t completely convinced that demolishing the building is the best option, but he’s happy to see the issue receiving more attention.

As a business owner, he’s sympathetic to Temple, but he’s also concerned about his customers.

“Is there a need for low-income housing? Of course,” Horn says. “Is there a need for people to receive help with their addictions and the paths that they chose in life? Of course there is. Is Central Avenue, in the heart of your business district a place for that? That’s debatable.”

Across the street at 925 Central, Vern Temple is busy juggling his pastoral responsibilities with his duties as a landlord. One minute he’s talking to someone about locks on the doors, the next he’s offering a woman a free loaf of bread.

The soft-spoken Temple has spent roughly 15 years operating the Full Gospel Outreach Centre at this location, and 25 ministering in Prince Albert’s downtown in general.

While he understands the concerns of his neighbours, he’s adamant the situation is improving.

“It’s something that’s been building,” he says. “I’ve had meetings with the police and it was said that I need to do some evictions. I think the city, they’re in a position where they can’t just be idle. They have to do something about it. They’ve told us to make changes, and we are.”

Temple says the goal is to help people change their lives, and Central Avenue provides an ideal location. The downtown area includes a number of services low-income residents use, like legal aid offices, the Ministry of Social Services, and the Canada-Saskatchewan Labour Market Services offices.

“It’s not that simple,” he says when asked about moving.

Providing low-income residents with an apartment to live in is part of that ministry, but that doesn’t mean tenants can do what they want. Recently Temple has evicted his worst tenants, some of which were drug dealers and gang members, and closed apartments that weren’t up to standard in an attempt to improve things.

He also insists that the high number of police and bylaw calls aren’t a symptom of decay. The people in his apartments are tying to leave their old lives, and sometimes gang members, drug dealers and old acquaintances don’t make it easy.

“You have to remember, the people who phone the police are law-abiding,” he says. “They’re good people.”

The residents in Temple’s apartments seem to share his sentiments. Wanda Naytowhow has lived in them for roughly a year. On this day she’s stopped by the Outreach Centre for some food, and she’s adamant there are more positives than negatives.

“I used to be straight up street, but he (Temple) has really helped,” she says. “I’ve come a long way from where I was…. It’s a new start for us.”

Will the building eventually be demolished? Temple doesn’t think so. He says he’ll close the apartments on the upper floor to keep the centre open, if he has to. Ideally, though, he hopes the city and surrounding business owners can be patient.

Business owners like Horn are eager to work together to find a solution, however it’s not clear if that will happen.

“By no means are we thinking we should attack anybody,” he says. “But, we do need to look after what we’re trying to do as well, and we need to look after the people who want to come through our door.”

@kerr_jas • jason.kerr@paherald.sk.ca