A popular Hazelton tourist attraction, the replica riverboat, is vacant after the Village of Hazelton ended its lease with the occupants, who say the decision has left them high and dry.
Bruce and Rene Chandler had been sub-leasing the building from the not-for-profit Misty Rivers Arts Council, which Rene is a member of, to run their soup and juice bar called Boat’s.
Both the art gallery, which showcases the work of local artists, and the cafe closed when the arts council’s lease ended on Dec. 31, although the arts council will not be disbanded.
In its termination letter, the village said it had decided not to lease the building in the immediate future to allow time to evaluate its condition and consider the best way to utilize it in the future.
The Chandlers, who say they have been forced to close their business and look for new employment, say the municipality has let them down.
They claim the village had allowed them to set up the business in the first place, then ended their lease when they were starting to make a profit.
The couple had been gearing up to expand the cafe’s menu and hours in 2015, which Bruce said would cater for an influx of people to the region if proposed LNG projects were approved.
“We were geared up and ready to [serve] breakfast at 5 a.m. and make a packed lunch,” Bruce said.
“We feel definitely let down by not having that opportunity.
“If there was a genuine reason then I could accept it but I haven’t heard a genuine reason yet.”
But Mayor Maitland said the village had made it clear the new tenancy had been refused for reasons including concerns over a business leasing from a non-profit.
Maitland told The Interior News the arrangement was originally made to allow the Arts Council, which initiated the lease in June 2011, to supplement its income.
“The addendum to the original lease was agreed to in order to assist the Arts Council with costs and staffing the gallery space,” Maitland said.
“However, over time it evolved into a business venture for the Chandlers which required, at a minimum, a new lease arrangement and market rent.”
Maitland said the non-commercial lease allowed the cafe to rent the space for about half as much as the standard commercial rate.
Although she acknowledged Rene Chandler had tried to rectify the problem by proposing a new commercial lease with Boat’s, the mayor said a new agreement was never signed due to the higher cost.
She said rent and utility payments were “continually late” in the latter half of 2013 and through 2014.
The Arts Council’s relationship with Boat’s had prevented the village from helping the not-for-profit stay in the building, she added.
“The Arts Council wanted to continue to operate in the riverboat but was going through challenges with declining membership,” Maitland said.
“If council wished, it could have assisted the Arts Council by reducing or forgiving the rent or offering a grant-in-aid.
“However, with Boat’s as a sub-lessee, village council could not assist the arts council without further assisting the Chandlers’ business.”
In October last year, the council resolved not to renew the lease and advertised for expressions of interest.
A submission from the Chandlers was one of two applications rejected by the village.
The village has since decided not to lease the riverboat until it has been evaluated as part of a review of its buildings.
“Council is now in the process of determining the best use [of] all municipal buildings, including the riverboat and whether it is in the best interest of the village to lease out the building commercially or retain it for community use,” Maitland said.
Misty Rivers secretary Maggie Carew said she was disappointed because both the gallery space and the arrangement with Boat’s had worked well for the organization.
She said she was aware that Boat’s share of the rent had been paid late on some occasions, and that the village was concerned about the lease, but she had been hopeful those issues would be rectified.
“It was really nice having the restaurant there, people would come for a meal and then go and look at the pictures or the gift shop or they would come for the pictures and gift shop and buy something to eat,” she said.
“It was kind of a symbiotic relationship that we had with Rene and I get along with her very well so I thought it was a terrific arrangement.”
Carew said the council was looking for a new location and would regroup in the spring to devise a plan.
The replica riverboat was built in 1969 to pay tribute to Hazelton’s heritage as the farthest navigation point from the port at Prince Rupert.
Riverboats brought freight and miners to the northern interior during a gold-rush in the 1800s, until they were replaced by the railroad in 1912.
Parts of the structure are from a real paddleboat which was reconstructed as a restaurant in Vancouver.
The original parts were salvaged and returned to Hazelton after the restaurant was destroyed by a fire.