Sandspit residents saw it coming, though it came a bit sooner than expected.
The restaurant at the Sandspit Inn was open for one final time on June 28, offering a “shut down special” with discounted appetizers while supplies lasted. About a week after that, the inn was advertising the sale of bed packages that came with a free tube TV.
“As I rummaged through the bedding, towels and chairs, I had a pit in my stomach,” one of the patrons of the inn, Claire Gauthier, shared on social media. “I couldn’t help but remember all the good times that will be no more.”
A final sale was scheduled from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on July 24 at the inn, with COVID-19 safety protocols in place.
As previously reported, the inn was located in a building owned by Transport Canada’s airport land, leased by the Sandspit Community Society.
According to North Coast Regional District Area E Director Evan Putterill, the society took over the inn around 2012 when Westcoast Resorts decided not to operate the business. By 2019, society director Heron Wier said the volunteer board members were ready to step away.
“Running a hotel, restaurant and pub is a lot of work for a volunteer board and we were getting tired, so we decided to see if we could find a community member to take over the operation,” Wier said in an email.
Putterill, who was a founding director of the society, told the Observer they had a community meeting and public consultation process to transition the inn to an owner/operator in the private sector. The society put out a call for proposals, received several and opted to work with one of the applicants, Behn Cochrane, who was hired as an interim manager.
Transport Canada seemed to support the plan to keep the inn open at first, Putterill and Wier said, but after a few months the federal department called a meeting with the society and indicated a change of direction, seeing the inn as a liability outside of their mandate.
Senior communications advisor Sau Sau Liu told the Observer that after Transport Canada was informed by the society in September 2019 that they intended to stop operating the inn, her department did not renew the lease.
“At no point did Transport Canada cancel the lease of the Sandspit Community Society (SCS) or undertake any planning work to demolish the Sandspit Inn,” Liu said by email. “In September 2019, Transport Canada was informed by the SCS that they intended to stop operating the Sandspit Inn and restaurant, which led to Transport Canada agreeing to extend the SCS’s occupation of the leased premises until September 2020 in order to wind down their operations.”
She said the society then informed Transport Canada in late June that they would stop operating on July 1, an earlier closing date that was forced due to the economic impacts of COVID-19.
“With COVID we did ‘take-out only’ at the restaurant and had almost no guests in the hotel,” Wier said. “We stayed open for the community, but in late June, with no possibility of being able to continue operations past September and a diminishing bank account, we made the decision to close down a little early and focus on our community development work.”
According to Wier, Transport Canada “said their intent is to subdivide the [inn] out of their land and sell it.” To ensure the inn will be able to reopen as quickly as possible once it is sold, he said they offered to sell their equipment to Transport Canada, “so they would have a turn-key operation to sell,” or leave their chattel set up “so [they] could then make a deal with the new owner,” but Transport Canada was not interested in either option.
Currently, Liu said Transport Canada is working with the society to vacate the premises.
“Once the SCS has vacated the property, Transport Canada will review the property to determine the best management approach going forward, taking into consideration the Sandspit Airport’s operations and Government of Canada real property rules,” she said.
North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice advocated on behalf of the inn in a statement addressed to the provincial parliament on July 14, saying it was an “integral part of the tourism economy in Sandspit” and played “a critical role in bringing the community together as a gathering place.”
The inn also happened to have the only pub in the Moresby Island community, Rice added.
“My hope is that the federal government can see the importance and significance of that, and support the residents of Sandspit by letting them keep their inn,” she said.
Speaking to the Observer by phone, Skeena—Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach also said he had spoken with Transport Minister Marc Garneau earlier this year and it seemed “demolition of the building was off the table.”
“I strongly urged the minister to find a way to keep the inn operating as it is in community hands,” Bachrach said.
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