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Downtown fire puts public knowledge of cannabis facilities into question in Prince Rupert

“It’s a grow and burn operation. Eventually, these places burn down …” — Terry Sawka, Belmont Hotel
Photo 2 is a zoomed image of photo 1 showing debris of the bulldozed building where a fire started on May 1, spreading to the Belmont Hotel on Third Ave. Terry Sawka, business owner said he believes the green plants seen in the rubble are from a cannabis grow operation which has been operating next door to the hotel. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Licenced cannabis grow operations in the city core need to be public knowledge, Terry Sawka, Prince Rupert business owner, said on May 3.

“Everyone is talking about them, but there is a reluctance to deal with the issue of grow operations in the downtown,” he told The Northern View.

Sawka is associated with running a business at the Belmont Hotel, which was destroyed in a fire on May 1. He alleges the building next door housed a cannabis grow operation and those need to be monitored under the same conditions as bars and hotels.

As reported in The Northern View online on May 3, Prince Rupert Fire Rescue confirmed the fire that destroyed the Belmont Hotel did start in the building next door, which was previously run and known as Rose’s Oriental Food and Gifts. An investigation into the cause of the fire was ongoing as of May 4.

Sawka said two and a half to three years ago the building next door sold.

“The next thing you know, we’re getting pot smell coming into our building. When it was harvest time, if you were down at the Save On grocery store, you could smell the shit. And that’s when I started complaining to the city … even customers would come in and ask if we were licenced to sell pot, and we would say ‘No, the smell is coming from down the block.’”

Rose’s building sold before the odour started and was offered to Sawka’s family for purchase, but they declined. For years the building next to the hotel has had brown paper over the doors and windows. However, Sawka said he has no idea who the new owners are and to his knowledge, they didn’t attend the site on the night of the fire.

“I’ve had my opinions that there was a grow op going on in there. I voiced my concerns to city hall and various council people. I’ve had discussions with Jennifer Rice over it. I’ve had a message with Taylor Bachrach,” he said.

“What I’m hearing … I’m getting the same old tune from everybody — that it’s a federal jurisdiction thing. Nobody seems to want to touch it. And this is not the only building. It’s not the only building in town.

“I’ve been told by city hall that these are legal operations. While they are legal operations, somebody has to give them licences.

“You know, there are at least five or six that everybody in town knows are operating downtown. When you question city hall, they are very evasive as far as I am concerned.”

Sawka said when the hotel and bar were running prior to the pandemic, fire crews attended every month to inspect the logbook, making sure all the fire exits were lit, fire extinguishers were fully operational, and if there were items not removed from blocking exits the business would be “written up.”

“So, if that is a rule for the liquor industry, the same rule [should be] applicable to the pot-growing industry.”

Sawka said he is at the hotel and liquor store “all the time,” doing maintenance on the building.

For the past six months, plans were in the works with a hired engineer and designer to renovate the hotel and bar. As late as April 25, the engineer had flown up from Vancouver at Sawka’s expense to further the construction plans.

“I’ve never seen anybody go in that building and do an electrical inspection or fire inspection,” he said of the old Rose’s shop.

“People say when you have a grow-0p, it’s a grow and burn operation. Eventually, these places burn down … the results speak for itself.”

The loss of the hotel has been devastating to his family, who has owned the establishment since 1963, when his father-in-law first purchased it, he said. Damages from the fire affected the liquor store that was on the opposite side of the hotel from where Sawka alleges the grow-op was. He said cannabis plants can be seen in the debris.

While the liquor store building is still standing, part of a wall is missing, the interior is water damaged, and there may now be structural integrity issues, he said. It is not a matter of a weekend clean-up and just reopening the doors.

The eight staff at the liquor store have also been affected because they now can’t work. One staff member has been there for more than 20 years, he said.

While he waits for the fire investigation results and insurance results, he said the plans are to rebuild. But, he said just as commercial grow ops should be made public, so should the investigation results.

“[Fire investigation results] should be public knowledge. If there was a fire as a result of a legal or an illegal pot grow-op — that should be public knowledge. If it’s not, then what the hell are you hiding?”

The Northern View has reached out to the City of Prince Rupert, Jennifer Rice MLA and MP Taylor Bachrach for comment.

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