Downtown resident and local comedian Peter Hudson remembers clearly the night the historic Jean Burns building caught on fire.
It was March 2016, and Hudson had just gone on a comedy tour through Western Canada with his childhood idol, former pro wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts. When he returned home with a signed tour poster, his girlfriend Sarah encouraged him to “support local” and take it to Bastion Gallery downtown to get it framed.
“Four days later, I watch a 15 foot flame shoot out of their store window. I’m not even kidding you,” he says. “And I look at Sarah like, [mimes her voice] ‘We have to support downtown local.’’’
The couple who ran the Bastion Gallery Fast Frames business, Blake and Paulette McCarthy, were one of the longest-running businesses downtown. They had been in the Jean Burns building complex since 1981, among more than a dozen other small businesses.
They lost everything in the fire, and with a minimal insurance policy, recovered very little.
“That was our life savings,” says Blake McCarthy. “We’re still not over it.” The couple relocated to a shop on Crace Street for a few years, but retired in 2019.
Despite the loss, six months after the fire, McCarthy contacted Hudson with a surprise.
“He gets ahold of me and says, ‘Hey man, come get your poster.’ And I’m like, ‘What?’” says Hudson.
McCarthy had found the poster in the rubble, covered in burns and damaged by water, and spent several months after the fire restoring it.
“He said, ‘You paid me ahead, so I had a debt. I had a debt to pay. And it took my mind off things.’ So he redid the whole poster, and it looks mint,” says Hudson, fighting back tears. “That, to me, is community.”
Recovery has been slow
Caused by a faulty bathroom ceiling fan, the fire displaced approximately 15 local businesses and studios. Since then, the building’s burned-out husk has been demolished and removed, leaving a hole in the centre of downtown on Commercial Street.
Site owner Crankshaw Holdings Ltd. has estimated that the work to date has cost close to a million dollars and is still ongoing. Currently, there are environmental issues to assess, which will be followed by geotechnical work and possible rezoning.
“That site of ours, we have coal there, we have a number of other contaminants there, there used to be water – the ocean came up in there and it’s all been back-filled,” says Rick Hyne, operating officer for Crankshaw Holdings, referring to how the area was formerly an inlet.
“To recover that, to do that work, is very costly. Then it’s like, okay well how do you recover those costs? Well then you have to build something bigger. Well, people don’t want something bigger there. So what do you do, right?”
The front corner of the property sits both on Commercial Street and Terminal Avenue, the latter of which is under the jurisdiction of the province because it is a highway, according to Bill Corsan, Nanaimo’s director of community development.
This means that any development adjacent to it needs to meet their guidelines for setbacks.
“The expectation is that a new building on that site would need to be set farther back than the original Jean Burns building, resulting in less ground floor area,” says Corsan. Any new building over three stories on this site would also need to be tapered or stepped back on the subsequent floors, which would reduce the area on the upper floors, he added.
Hyne said these are just some of many examples of challenges that have to be considered, and money that needs to be invested, prior to a company’s decision to embark on new construction. It is also unknown what further hurdles await that may halt construction down the road.
“So after spending millions of dollars on the site to clear it and get it ready to pour concrete, how do you justify spending that kind of money when you can’t build?” says Hyne, who adds that he, too, wants downtown to do better and has personally and professionally struggled with the losses incurred from four years ago.
“I don’t think many understand the trauma that resulted from that fire.”
What’s emerged from the rubble
It is a trauma that the tight-knit Jean Burns building community who occupied the space at 6 Commercial Street have struggled to overcome.
Painter Gerda Hofman had no insurance on the artwork in her upper-floor studio that overlooked Commercial Street, and lost ten years’ worth of paintings, drawings, and supplies.
“The only thing that was rescued from my studio was an old easel,” she says.
“It was made from an oak door from Calgary, from the old Glenbow Museum. I could see it sticking up there, in the building, because all the windows were gone and the roof was gone, I could see it there. So I told the building owner, ‘Whoever goes in there, can you please grab that?’”
The easel was cleaned up, and is now part of the new studio she established a few months after the fire, up the road at 93 Commercial Street.
She says the support of the community was overwhelming, and other local businesses like The Vault and Gabriel’s Cafe jumped in to raise funds for the displaced tenants. Gabriel’s Cafe had also offered free meals to fire fighters and tenants at the time of the fire.
Morganne Keplar lost not only her wedding ring when she left it in her husband John Shepherd’s cobbler workshop just prior to the fire, she also lost the wedding boots that he had custom-made for her.
Though all of his tools, equipment, and how-to books on shoemaking were destroyed, Shepherd says a firefighter did manage to salvage one of his antique hammers. He figures the water they were shooting into the building hit the hammer on his work bench and blew it out the window.
“That wasn’t my first fire,” chuckles Shepherd, who says that in 1979 he came home to find that one of the units in his Vancouver-based apartment building had caught on fire.
“I tend to handle trauma fairly well,” he says.
Shepherd went to Europe after the fire to study shoemaking and now lives on Salt Spring Island where he runs a business called Shepherd Shoes.
On the night of the fire, he says he went to the nearby Vault Cafe and sat there across the road, watching the building burn down.
“I felt pretty calm. And it was kind of puzzling, because it didn’t really affect me that much. I just said, okay well I’m just going to keep on going and go to Europe and I’m just going to start all over again.”
A swift recovery
Designer, illustrator and creative director Richard Hatter still cringes when he thinks of his “irreplaceable” mid-century modern teak furniture collection that burned in his old Jean Burns building design studio.
Though the destruction of computers, memorabilia, his daughter’s artwork, antique books, awards, and other items was significant, their Hired Guns Creative team fortunately had most of their work backed up off-site. This was a crucial piece that allowed them to swiftly hit the ground running with the business after the fire, Hatter says.
“I’d say we lost about a week’s worth of work, all said and done. And then in terms of rebuilding, we managed to find a new office space just a couple days later,” says Hired Guns partner and business director Leif Miltenberger.
“There was a small law firm that was shutting down […] and they were looking for someone to take it over.”
Since then, the company has kept going strong, and is a leader in the field of packaging design for breweries, wineries and distilleries. In the last four years they have continued to win a number of design awards. In 2018, their work was featured in Time magazine, and their last major project involved a complete packaging rebrand of Victoria-based Lighthouse Brewing Co.’s products.
“It’s been a good year for us. We work with companies that make alcohol, designing their packaging, and people are not drinking less this year,” says Miltenberger with a laugh.
Though their five-person team currently works from home or in private offices, Hatter says they are looking to potentially reopen a studio downtown again once the COVID-19 pandemic settles down.
“We need people living down there and spending their money down there,” says Hatter. “We need the centre, the heart of our town, back. We need it to be prosperous… And make it upscale and cool, make it something that we can be proud of.”
‘A lot of potential’
As for the future of the old Jean Burns building site, it remains uncertain.
“To make that site viable, we are either going to need a provincial partner, a big change in the rezoning or to build something smaller, more affordable. That would be a shame as the site has a lot of potential,” Hyne tells The Discourse via email. He adds that the situation has been a “multi-year nightmare” that has left him feeling as frustrated as everyone else.
“We are here because of the history of downtown. We would like to be part of a vision, but that vision means stakeholders have to sit at a round table to have a discussion,” he says, referring to the future of Nanaimo’s downtown core.
“We have spent a lot of time at rectangle tables over the years and what we have today is a hole in the ground.”
He says that Crankshaw owns other buildings downtown facing similar challenges and wants to work together on a collective vision.
“The potential is all there. Our door is open.”
Julie Chadwick is reporting for The Discourse. Sign up for our weekly newsletter for news that inspires hope straight to your inbox.