Brewing an idea for the old Anglican Church

There are many opinions among Burns Lake residents on what to do with the old St. John’s Anglican Church. Here’s another one: it should be turned into a craft beer bar.

I’m detecting some eye-rolling, scoffing and snickering – but hear me out.

The conversion of heritage church buildings into craft beer bars has been happening for several years in the Western world, including in Canada.

Since 2011, the Silversmith Brewing Company has been operating its pub and brewery in a church building dating back to the 1890s in Virgil, Ontario, not far from Niagara Falls.

Last year, the Yellowbelly Brewery set up shop in the century-old Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland.

And closer to home, the Ucluelet Brewing Company will next month open its doors in the former St. Aidan’s on the Hill Church in that town on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

The choice of these traditional buildings for bars and breweries is based on their central location, their beautiful and historic interior designs and their sizes designed for large numbers of people.

The church on First Avenue satisfies all those elements, though it is in need of expensive renovations.

While the building might not be of sufficient size to house a brewing operation, it would be the right size for a bar, and could join the craft beer trend – already huge in big cities – and spreading in the northwest in such towns as Terrace and Smithers.

By joining that movement, the bar would give diners and drinkers in the village more choice and attract a different customer demographic. It could even draw customers from out of town who want to try different beverages and other British Columbian craft beers.

That demographic is sometimes known as “craft beer tourists”, and Google and social media searches show it is a group that seeks out craft beers while travelling and enjoying local culture. They might see another reason to stop and spend some money in Burns Lake.

If the church becomes a bar, as a business it would travel a path already blazed (no pun intended) by Nations Cannabis. That local company has set up in an already-existing space (Burns Lake Specialty Wood building) and is working to supply consumer demand while also creating new jobs and economic activity in the area.

Critics might be thinking that putting an alcohol-serving establishment in a heritage church is a distasteful move that Burns Lake doesn’t need. (They might also think that reconciling the bylaws and zoning regulations with the proposed idea would be prohibitively complex, but that’s another column for another day).

Lets consider some of the alternatives. If indecision over the future of the church continues much longer, the cost of the needed renovations could rise, leading to the possibility that donors will become discouraged. Better to act soon so that the costs don’t get out of hand.

Another option is turning the church into an art gallery. This is a great idea and the subject of much positive discussion by community members. But would a gallery attract decent numbers of attendees and tourists? Would it be able to generate regular revenue so that some of the costs of the renovations could be recouped?

There is also the idea of making the building into an event space that could be rented out to groups for meetings or parties. A good possibility as well, but it lacks the potential for economic development, something the village needs as the changing strength of the forestry industry presents new challenges.

As a craft beer bar, the church building could combine both those options by hosting art made from local artists and by putting on events.

The old Anglican Church was for decades a place where people gathered, enjoyed fellowship and helped build a community. Let the building continue to serve that role, while also letting it be self-sustaining.

Blair McBride
Multimedia reporter
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