The fire that razed the iconic Alberni Athletic Hall on Beaver Creek Road in 2009 is one of those events that, when you think of it, you can remember exactly where you were when it happened.
Port Alberni Athletic Hall Society president Larry Spencer was driving into the city along Highway 4 on the morning of May 12, 2009 when he checked the messages on his cellphone and found 20 of them, all of which said the same thing.
“Everyone said the hall was on fire and that it was burning down,” Spencer recalled. “I didn’t believe it until I saw it for myself.”
A massive fire leveled the venerable hall at its former location on Beaver Creek Road. Twenty-three firefighters from two different departments battled the blaze for more than six hours but the building, which was the epicentre of the community for half a century, was lost.
The then board of directors vowed to rebuild and a massive effort was undertaken to accomplish that.
A land swap with the city resulted in a new location. The society received more than $1 million in insurance money. And federal grants were found. A new hall was built and opened its doors in November 2010.
Lost amid the excitement though were the generation of directors and society members who grew old running the hall and now need in infusion of new blood.
The average age of directors is 75. Director Scott Davidson is in his 40s and Spencer is in his late 50s—they are the youngest members of the executive, Spencer said. “We need some fresh faces soon before we start to burn out.”
Two years after the fire, the new hall is a beehive of activity. The new facility has hosted science fairs, craft fairs, basketball tournaments and graduation ceremonies. Drop-in basketball is active, as are volleyball and badminton practices. And dryland hockey training is also held in the wood-clad gym-nasium.
“I remember when we had a $1,400 repair budget for the year and a tonne of repairs to do. Today, we’re in good financial shape,” Spencer said. “For a place that had to be built from the ground up again we’re doing pretty good.”
For all the new activities at the hall though few if any users have taken an interest in running it, Spencer said. “Lots of people use the place but no one has stepped forward to be a director or be on a comm-ittee,” he said.
The society is comprised of 13 board of directors. There are 30 to 40 society members on paper, of which 12 to 15 are active in the society, Spencer said.
The society’s election is Wednesday, after the News deadline, and Spencer says he hopes to see a new director or two.
Spencer’s mother, once a fixture at the hall and who helped in the community wherever it was needed, is now past the time in her life when she can do that.
Athletic Hall stalwarts Denny Grisdale and Bill Andrews are both over age 75, and Jack Gilbert, who steps in and helps once in awhile, is over 80 years old.
“These guys are real local legends, but some of them are having a hard time even getting around these days,” Spencer said.
“We need some new legends.”
Andrews, 75, has been involved in the Athletic Hall since playing basketball there in his teens; he stayed involved afterward, he said. “It was a big thing in my life and as an adult I felt I owed something to it and gave back,” he said.
Andrews coached youth basketball, did maintenance, worked bingos and bar nights, and he coordinated rentals for one year, he said.
“And I was treasurer for more than 20 years.”
Andrews stayed involved but said to do a good job you need to devote a lot of time to it, time that he wants to enjoy more of in his retirement.
Much of the Valley’s population is older and may feel the same way, Spencer said. “And people in general are just busier these days and don’t always have the time.”
The society’s treasurer isn’t running again so there’s a slot open for someone who has some financial knowhow and is community minded.
“And if someone wants to be president, well hey, you won’t get any argument from me,” Spencer said.
Some ideas around attracting new society members include requiring user groups to appoint someone to be a member, Spencer said. “And we host a lot of First Nations events so I’d like to see that reflected on our board.”
Local health professional Sandra Innes Gentleman uses the hall frequently with her children to play badminton, and has considered running for the board.
“My background is in health and health promotion and the hall does promote healthy activities,” she said.
“It would depend on the time commitment involved and the expectation, but being on the board is definitely something I’d think about.”
Innes Gentleman sees how the hall draws people from other cities to Port Alberni for athletic events and says there are other possibilities too. “It’s a great facility with a lot of space so they could host a health fair there, for sure.”