I don’t often visit the Nelson and District Youth Centre, but 30 years ago I spent a lot of time there as a new city councillor. As I discovered on my recent visit, the ghosts from that time still hover about.
The first ghost leapt off the colourful mural on the front of the building on Lake Street. It reminded me of a long-ago mural proposal that came to council and was approved. The drawing showed a proud Christopher Columbus on the prow of a ship being tossed by sea waves. At that time, that conquering figure didn’t raise an eyebrow. But the completed mural raised a lot of them, when Christopher emerged stark naked. A debate about propriety vs. freedom of expression followed, and eventually the City painted over the mural with dull grey paint.
As I walked through the centre’s front door, expecting a quiet Thursday morning , I was enveloped by happy, energetic voices. It was Adventure Time for tots under five, and a group of home-school families were also there. Most kids were busy on the all-wheels park, sliding on their backsides, or riding scooters, bikes and skateboards. The park is like a mountain range, with valleys, ridges and bowls. And it’s big – the largest in B.C.
Other children played basketball or foosball, and some began their drumming careers in the music room or chilled in the library. I watched a tiny girl bravely tackle the climbing wall, then don her helmet and transform to a plucky bike rider. The kitchen had cookies on offer, and other spaces awaited programs like creative arts, tech time, dance, yoga, Weekday Warriors (the after-school program) and birthday party rentals.
In its earlier life, the building was a Coca-Cola bottling plant and then a garage, owned by the city. In the early 1990s a small non-profit called SHRED saw the unused building as an opportunity for a youth centre and leased it from the city. At The Garage, they first focused on developing an indoor skate park and secured donations to build ramps and do building upgrades. But they fell behind in the lease fees owed to the city. After about five years, SHRED reached out their hands to the city for help, but instead got slapped.
City council, led by mayor Gary Exner, were unhappy about the growing debt, rumours of alcohol or drugs on-site, and the loss of an industrial building just to meet youth recreation needs. The lease agreement was terminated and next morning SHRED folks showed up at The Garage to find the city had changed the locks. And that was that. Except for SHRED’s $70,000 infrastructure investment for which they received $2,500 from the city. They were forced to sell other assets to pay off their debt.
Bitter ghosts whispered that story as I walked around the familiar spaces of the building. I remembered the well-intentioned but inexperienced group that tried so hard to provide a space for youth, and how their efforts were not supported or recognized.
A year or so later, in 1997, the youth centre re-opened with financial support from the city, including a paid co-ordinator. Since then the centre has had its own ups and downs on the ramps of life, but I clearly heard the joy that users (from tots to adults) experience there.
Innovative ways to fund the centre have evolved. For example, they operate the City Campground, providing work experience to youth and revenue for the centre. Recently the summer markets were added. Other youth-serving organizations like Freedom Quest and the Nelson Youth Action Network, as well as the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy, have offices in the centre, helping to cover costs.
Some areas of the centre need sprucing up, and maybe new paint will quiet the voices of the ghosts of the past. The present is bright, and the future holds the potential for so much more. I won’t be riding the ramps any time soon, but I might just go and soak up some youthful joy.
Donna Macdonald has lived in Nelson since 1972, and is the author of Surviving City Hall, a memoir of her 19 years on Nelson City Council. Her column will appear monthly.