Duane Lowe Community Centre in Birch Hills hosts grand opening

Michael Oleksyn/Daily Herald (L to R) Chief Administrative Officer Danielle Vandale, councillor Barry Evans, Duane Lowe, Shirley Ulvild and councillor Graham Tweten took part in the ribbon cutting for the Duane Lowe Community Centre on June 4 in Birch Hills.

The new Duane Lowe Community Centre, a muti-use facility for the Town of Birch Hills, is officially open.

Residents held the grand opening and ribbon ceremony on Saturday, June 4. The facility is named for Duane Lowe, who acted as volunteer project manager on the revitalization of the former Co-op building.

“It’s a legacy thing for me,” Lowe said. “I’m not a young guy, and it’s kind of a legacy for my family too—my entire family, my grandfather. It is just something that is special.”

Lowe’s family has been in the Birch Hills area for 123 years. He didn’t think the town would name something after him or his family, but he’s grateful they did.

“It was humbling to me to be asked,” he said. “It was totally unexpected and it’s a very proud moment for me.”

Birch Hills mayor Stewart Adams was happy to see the facility officially open. The new community centre not only gives locals a place to gather, it brought a vacant building on the community’s main street back to life.

“A lot of these small communities have lost to the major urban centres,” Adams said. “It’s nice to try and fill up some of the buildings, to find a use for them, and to get the community to buy back into these small communities.”

As volunteer project manager, Lowe oversaw the development, which helped create a new home for the seniors centre.

Michael Oleksyn/Daily Herald Duane Lowe speaks during the Grand Opening Ceremony for the Duane Lowe Community Centre on June 4 in Birch Hills.

“I brought a skill set of design and project management to the project and that was my way of donating through time and work I guess,” Lowe said.

There is a main space as well as a board room. The Wapiti Library branch has also relocated to the building.

“I think it turned out really well,” Lowe said. “Like I say, with any renovation, unexpected things pop up. We hadn’t planned on replacing the roof, but it was necessary, and so you are constantly making adjustments plus or minus. You do one thing and you have to reduce somewhere else. It’s much like renovating your home.”

The Town of Birch Hills and town administration put together a feasibility study to use the vacant Co-op building as the new community hall, library and meeting room before submitting an offer on the building in 2015.

“At the end of the day, it’s nice to see a building on Main Street that has a new lifespan and not a for lease sign on it,” Lowe said.

The committee was formed under Lowe’s leadership. Together, the group came up with a plan to meet the needs of a diverse user groups.

The interior of the building was completely rebuilt with electrical, heating and plumbing as well as new walls and flooring. The exterior of the building was also updated and modernized.

In the main space, there are photos acknowledging the history of the site of the building.

“I’m old enough to remember the pictures on the wall, but prior to that there was a two storey feed store here where the managers lived on the top floor back in the late 1940s and early 1950s,” Lowe remembered. “This has always been a Co-op store location for many, many, years and now it has a new life.”

Having a space that included the library was important to Adams. He said the local Wapiti branch has doubled their traffic volumes, and plan to increase their hours of service to meet demand.

“It’s good,” he said. “Reading is education. You use more brain cells when you read than when you watch TV.”

Adams also hoped the project would inspire other communities to do something similar.

Since COVID, he added, many activities have faded away. He hopes the new community centre will help them come roaring back.

“We were down to 10 or 12 active members (in the seniors group) and it’s been revitalized,” he said. “We have in excess of 100 seniors signed up into the seniors group, so that’s positive, and that’s the purpose of the building. Get people back. Get them active. Get them out, and get them socializing. It’s good for mental health and it’s good for physical health.”

Shirley Ulvild was mayor when the project began. She was happy to see it completed, even though there were some bumps along the way.

“I never doubted it, but at times the going got a little rough,” she said. “The committee we had were just so positive and never looked back. That was the best part.

“I was born in Birch Hills 84 years ago in the old hospital here and to be still here and a part is wonderful,” she added.

Ulvild said her husband was currently in a nursing home, and would greatly benefit from the new community centre. She described it ass a great place to have for him

“Close to home, it’s all here. We are so proud,” she said.

Ulvild added that many Birch Hills houses are selling, and more and more young families are moving in to fill them. With the community being revitalized, she explained, it only makes sense to revitalize the downtown too.

Acting Chief Administrative Officer Danielle Vandale was the master of ceremonies on Saturday. Attendees viewed a short video from when the project began. Dancers from the Birch Hills Dance Centre entertained the crowd with a solo and duo performance.

Michael Oleksyn/Daily Herald Dancers from the Birch Hills Dance Centre performed during the Grand Opening Ceremony for the Duane Lowe Community Centre on June 4 in Birch Hills.

The town received recognition at the 15th annual Saskatchewan Municipal Awards for the innovative way they transformed the vacant Co-op building into a new multi-use facility. The Town tied for second in the competition with Churchbridge.

The total cost of the renovation was nearly $540,000.

During the ceremony Adams recognized donors big and small including Harvey Gjesdal who donated $100,000 to start the project and the Gordon Tomtene family who donated $75,000 and some furniture to complete the project.

Jason Greene, Amanda Gerhart, Affinity Credit Union and Lorne McConaghy each donated $10,000 and the meeting room will be named in the memory of Lorne’s wife Norma who began her teaching career in Birch Hills. Marshall Johnstone donated $16,000 over the course of the project.

“I think the real catalyst to getting the project under way was when we brought RNF on,” Lowe said. “It was what you would call as general contractors, and we were trying to manage the sub trades and so on our own. It just became so much more efficient after they were on board and they were a real asset to the team.”

The small donors who gave over the course of the project donated $150,150 which meant going back to the community of 1,200 numerous times.

“We were very pleased and appreciative of the gifts that the major donors made. Just as important as that was the $20 gifts and the $100 gifts. Each one had a story and each one was unique,” Adams said.

The building committee will remain in place to make sure the donor wall project is completed.

Another important donation was RNF Ventures who donated in kind assistance by managing the final completion of the project.

Along with Adams and Lowe the other speaker was Batoche MLA Delbert Kirsch, Premier Scott Moe was invited but sent his regrets.

Following the ribbon cutting there was casual walking tours of the building and a hot dog lunch.