The Sandspit community gathered at the Sandspit Inn last Wednesday to talk about the situation with Transport Canada and what to do moving forward, before SCS got a conference call with the federal department to discuss it’s future on Thursday. (photo Heron Wier)

Future of Sandspit Inn hangs in the balance, Transport Canada not renewing lease

Transport Canada and Sandspit Community Society set to discuss options

The Sandspit Inn is facing closure, following a decision by Transport Canada to no longer renew their lease.

The federal department has agreed to leave the Sandspit Inn open until the end of September so the Sandspit Community Society (SCS) can honour their already signed contracts with clients for the upcoming season. Last Thursday, Transport and SCS spoke via conference call to find a solution to save the inn.

The Sandspit Inn is in a building that is owned by Transport Canada’s airport land and has been leased by the Sandspit Community Society since 2014. The lease, which is on a two-year term, ran out in May, however, a stipulation in the contract allowed SCS to continue operations until a new lease was provided.

In the fall, Transport Canada reassured the society that they were working on the new lease. More than a week ago SCS received a call from the federal department, informing them that the lease would not be renewed and they would require an exit plan by the end of March 2020, explained Heron Wier, volunteer director of Sandspit Community Society.

“The hotel building is considered to be surplus property as it is not necessary to support airport operations, and the ownership of a hotel does not fall within Transport Canada’s mandate. As such, Transport Canada intends to sell the building in accordance with the federal rules to dispose of surplus real estate property,” stated the federal department.

Wier said that the community gathered for a meeting to discuss the situation and felt that the biggest issue continues to be Transport Canada’s lack of communication and stability on the issue.

“Without the Sandspit Inn many of these companies would have to house their guests in a different community and use the services offered in that community. The trickle-down effect of this would be devastating to the Sandspit economy and may mean the end to our grocery store and bus system,” Wier said. “Since 2014, tourism has been increasing [in Sandspit] and the economy has slowly improved. Our economy and available services rely on the business of tourists and tour companies utilizing the services offered in our community,” Wier said.

Wier also said that the inn accounts for more than 25 per cent of tourism accommodation in the area, not including the fishing lodges.

READ MORE: Haida Gwaii sportfishing lodges set to shut down

The inn houses 20 rooms, available to tourists in the summer, and is used by tour companies as their local logistics base. The inn is one of the largest employers in Sandspit with up to 20 full and part-time employees in the summer — 14 per cent of the working population of Sandspit.

No official paperwork or written statement has been drawn up to confirm the inn will stay open until the end of September.

“Our community cannot handle the inn not being open for one summer. Trying to sell it is just as bad as demolishing it. The stability is what the community needs, and needs to know it will operate as a hotel and restaurant continuously and there won’t be a big break,” Weir said.

Manager may leave position over inn’s uncertain future

Transport Canada said they were notified in September 2019 that the Sandspit Community Society no longer wanted to operate the hotel and is looking for a third party to take over the lease.

Wier said that SCS had no intention of shutting down the inn and were working to find someone to take over the lease.

“We wanted the inn to continue, we are volunteers trying to run a fairly large business. It is a lot of work and tiring. Now that it is a buyable business it was a great time to transfer it,” Weir said.

Ben Cochrane, current manager of the inn and teacher by trade, was set to take over the lease, something which Weir said Transport Canada was notified of immediately.

Cochrane took a leave-of-absence from teaching to start The Gwaii Land Tour Company and was hoping the business opportunity would be another step into the business realm.

Cochrane has a deadline of March 31 to notify the school board if he plans to return to teaching. With the fate of the inn up in the air he may abandon the business opportunity altogether.

“This situation does not bode well for me sticking with [the inn] if I do not know what the future of it is. I am feeling a little hesitant about it. Transport Canada is not giving us a way to move forward from a business standpoint,” Cochrane said. “There is not a lot of stability Transport Canada is offering and I was working closely with the Sandspit Community Society to transition to a private proprietorship. This puts a hamper on those plans.”

Cochrane said he would like to see the community take ownership of the building and lease it to him after having spent 37 out of the last 39 years of his life living on Haida Gwaii.

“To get to that point, it is a long way off. Those are all pie in the sky things to hope for.”

Cochrane would also consider purchasing the building, despite the costs not fitting into his immediate business plans. Transport Canada confirmed that “substantial repairs to maintain the building will be required in the next few years” but could not speculate on the cost of repairs.

“I’m thinking of it from a community perspective right now and not a business perspective. I have to put that aside for the time being,” Cochrane said.

A purchasing process would also well exceed Cochrane’s March 31 deadline to decide whether or not to return to teaching.

Transport Canada said they could not speculate on a timeline to complete a purchase. In order to prepare the building for a potential sale, a number of assessments need to be completed, including a survey plan for the site, environmental reports, valuation estimates, and consultation with local stakeholders and Indigenous groups.

Transport Canada must then sell the building in accordance with federal rules to dispose of surplus real estate property. The department is required to consult with other federal departments, the province, local governments and Indigenous groups. If there is no interest expressed, they may then can go ahead to sell the property to other potential buyers, they stated.

Evan Putterill, electoral area director for Sandspit, for the North Coast Regional District, said that the board has not considered taking over the building if offered at the regional level.

“The more important reason is that there is a business operating successfully. There is no need for local or regional government to take it on. That would have to be forced by federal government, and they have not asked us that,” he said.

Putterill said he is most disappointed that Transport Canada seems to be disregarding the value the community has put back into the airport, which Transport Canada owns and operates.

“This building is a landmark here in Sandspit and it is a really important part of our lives. People are really upset with the way Transport Canada has dealt with this. The volunteer fire department has been providing emergency services for at least 20 years to the airport, and they can’t see the value this community has. It is out of touch with what is going on and this would demolish the community,” he said.

Skeena-Bulkey Valley MP Taylor Bachrach has also been advocating to keep the inn open at the federal level. Bachrach said he has written letters to Transportation Minister Marc Garneau, but no formal meeting has been set yet to discuss the issue.

“Regional staff deal with these kinds of thing and the bulk of conversations take place at that level. It never hurts to let the minister know the impacts decisions will have on small communities. My fear is sometimes the impact of decisions on small communities are not immediately evident at the higher levels. I am always optimistic once they understand what it means to the community that they will make the right decision,” Bachrach said.

READ MORE: Liberals’ fiscal update shows billions more in deficits this year and next


Jenna Cocullo | Journalist
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