Thunderbird Building sparks hope for growth in Port Alberni’s uptown

Eric Plummer, June 28, 2017

The Uchucklesaht Tribe celebrated the opening of the Thunderbird Building with an event on June 24.

Port Alberni — 

Between 600 and 800 years ago someone peeled a strip off of a western red cedar near the village of Ehthlateese by Uchucklesaht Inlet, located in Vancouver Island’s Barkley Sound. The inner bark from cedar trees was commonly woven at the time, making clothing, bedding or mats a likely usage of the removed strip.

Traces of this modification remain in the cedar, although the marked tree is now a centerpiece for the Uchucklesaht Tribe’s decision making as the boardroom table within the Thunderbird Building, a recently competed home for the Tribe’s government, services and cultural activities in Port Alberni. The Thunderbird also houses 34 apartments and a yet-to-be-occupied restaurant space, a mixed usage that garnered an award earlier this year from the Vancouver Island Real Estate Board.

The $8-million building is part of a long-term vision the Tribe is pursuing to generate economic development in the region.

“Our endeavors here are big, and more to come,” announced Hereditary Chief Clifford Charles to a crowd gathered at the Uchucklesaht’s celebration of the Thunderbird Building on June 24.

During the event Chief Councillor Charlie Cootes Sr. noted that the new administrative space follows decades of the Uchucklesaht renting offices from other First Nations in the Alberni Valley. The Thunderbird’s apartments started getting rented in September 2016, followed administrative offices being occupied the next month.

“It is not a burden on us financially because we built is as a multi-use building,” Cootes said of the Thunderbird development, noting the importance of the independence the Tribe has gained from the Maa-nulth Treaty to pursue such developments. “We are self-governing, and that’s what we’re celebrating today as a people.”

The property was purchased four years ago when the Somass Hotel occupied the lot, a structure that stood in various forms at the base of Argyle Street for over a century. But renovation costs initially expected to be $3.5 million grew to over $8 million when the mostly vacant Somass was discovered to be structurally unsound, including cracked steel beams holding up the third floor. The Uchucklesaht decided that a full demolition and build would be more economical that fixing up the old hotel.

 “It proved to be too onerous for financing to really make that building work,” said Cootes.

Priced in the $725-1,050 range, the Thunderbird’s one and two-bedroom apartments were designed to meet Port Alberni’s need for higher-end rental units. The Uchucklesaht contracted a private firm to analyze the local market, determining that a shortage of 700 apartments existed.

Uchucklesaht Chief Administrative Officer Scott Coulson interviewed each of the Thunderbird’s tenants. The building is best suited to long-term, open-market renters, he said.

“Our leases are starting to come up and I had everyone but one say they want to stay for another year lease,” Coulson said.

Three other suites have been designed to house Uchucklesaht members who have ventured to Port Alberni for medical treatment.

“Peple who are out on reserve can come in and be in a culturally sensitive spot where they can stay while they’re visiting loved ones in the hospital,” said Coulson.

With all of the units occupied, the Thunderbird represents potential to revitalize Port Alberni’s uptown business district, where a succession of retail spaces have gone vacant for years – most notably the former home of the Woodword’s department store on Third Avenue.

With a large lot on the other side of Argyle still empty from a devastating fire to the McGill & Associates building in 2014, Mayor Mike Ruttan called the Uchucklesaht’s development “renewal in an incredibly needy area of our city.”

“It creates a different sense of vibrancy that was not present before,” he said, noting that residents in the Thunderbird units will generate economic activity to the surrounding uptown area. “This building replaces a hotel – a series of hotels – in a way that is so much better. This building sparks this renewal that over time will continue on up Argyle Street and continue throughout this area.”

The culturally modified cedar isn’t the only preserved historical component to the Thunderbird Building. Uchucklesaht artifacts are on display in the building’s entrance reception, while wood from the old Somass Hotel forms the front desk. Tiles were also made from the former building’s bricks to surround the Thunderbird’s main floor elevators.

“That’s the old blue brick,” said Coulson.