It doesn’t look like it now, but in less than five months lower Argyle Street will look a lot different as the Uchucklesaht Tribe’s new cultural and administration building plans to open its doors.
Named the Thunderbird, and presently shrouded in scaffolding, the four-storey building has been years in the making.
The Uchucklesaht first bought the old Somass Hotel in July 2013 with plans to renovate it. Those plans were quickly kiboshed.
“We had to go and get all of the old asbestos out of the building and so in that process, all the drywall was torn down and so we were able to get in and see the guts of the old building,” said Uchucklesaht CAO Scott Coulson.
When the tribe thought they could renovate the buildings, costs stood at about $6 million.
“At that point, after about four to five months of working on the building, we determined that it couldn’t be saved. It would have cost the same as a new building.”
The decision was made in mid-2014 to tear down the building. The Uchucklesaht then spent several months designing a new building—increasing the project cost to $9 million.
“Then we went into tendering and construction for all of that.”
The Uchucklesaht received a development permit from the City of Port Alberni in February 2015 and construction commenced shortly after.
The building, Coulson said, will have a lot of significance to the Uchucklesaht.
“The building will be multicoloured with colours taken from the Uchucklesaht Tribe logo,” said Coulson. The logo colours are green, red, orange, yellow, black and white.
“The building itself is called the Thunderbird which comes from the Thunderbird’s nest (T’iitsk’in Paawats) which is up in Uchucklesaht Tribe traditional territory. It’s a very culturally sensitive spot for most nations around here.”
T’iitsk’in Paawats is located on the western shore of Henderson Lake near the mouth of Uchucklesaht Inlet on the Alberni Inlet. It’s approximately 38 kilometres southwest of Port Alberni on Vancouver Island.
To reflect its heritage, the building will be full of cultural activity.
“There will be a large carving studio on the ground floor off Kingsway [Avenue]. It will be large enough for poles and canoes and we will use it for dance classes and things like that as well,” said Coulson.
The building will also function as a meeting space for the community.
“There will be boardrooms for rent. We’re in the midst of building board tables out of wood from our treaty settlement lands. The board tables will be spectacular,” said Coulson.
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The tables won’t be the only part of the building using the Uchucklesaht’s own old growth.
A corner post on the building, at Kingsway and Argyle, is also be made out of old growth cedar.
“That corner post is an old growth cedar log from our treaty settlements land. It won’t be carved, it’s been stripped and sealed,” he said.
That corner of the building will feature a restaurant that will hopefully be based on first nations cuisine.
“When you put a request for proposal out you can suggest things but you can’t command them,” said Coulson.
“That’s one of the things we put into the RFP, that we would like them to be serving traditional foods. It might turn out that way and it might not, depending on how many people apply.”
The tribe will select a winner in the coming weeks.
Aside from the restaurant, boardrooms and carving studio, the building will host the tribe’s human services department downstairs, a small fish processing area for food fish, a small gym for staff and citizens and the tribe’s administration.
Currently, the tribe leases the former Hupacasath admin building on Beaver Creek Road—a building Coulson can’t wait to get out of.
“I can hardly wait to get into the [new] building and get out of my heat box over here,” said Coulson.
The building will also play host to both short- and long-term accommodation.
“We’ll have three motel units that we’ll use for medical travel and then we have 32 apartments,” said Coulson. The apartments will be mostly two-bedrooms and open to everyone.
“They’re higher end apartments. They have quartz counter tops, hardwood floors and each apartment has its own heat pump so they’ll be the only apartment that’s air conditioned in Port Alberni.”