Naramata Centre closure has big impact on community

Sadness, loss and grief. That’s how Gerry Anderson describes the mood for the Centre at Naramata.

CUPE members on the picket lines at the Centre of Naramata.

CUPE members on the picket lines at the Centre of Naramata.

Sadness, loss and grief.

That’s how Gerry Anderson describes the mood for the Centre at Naramata the day after announcing the 68-year-old spiritual centre would be closing permanently.

“It is with deep regret and heartfelt sadness that the board of directors of the Naramata Centre Society announces that the Centre at Naramata will cease operations and close immediately,” reads the board’s release, issued late Wednesday afternoon.

But the months-long strike that has already kept the doors closed through most of the past year isn’t why the Centre is closing, according to Anderson, one of the society’s directors.

“We are not shutting the doors because of the strike. We think it is just a symptom of our bigger issues,” said Anderson. The labour dispute, he explained, was just one of many hurdles keeping the Centre from competing with similar operations.

“The place is 68 years old. A lot of the buildings are 50 years old and more,” he said. “It required so much of an investment of capital to bring it up to a competitive standard that we couldn’t see our way through that.”

The announcement comes after the centre raised $500,000 through its Crossroads campaign. But that campaign just gave the board of directors some breathing room, according to Anderson — otherwise, the centre would have been out of money by the end of 2014.

After concluding the Crossroads fundraising campaign, according to the release, the board undertook a thorough review of the Centre’s future operations, revenue potential, staffing plan, expenses, and ability to be financially viable.

“The review concluded that the Centre could not continue to operate in a feasible, sustainable, and responsible manner on a long-term basis. Those who contributed to the Crossroads Campaign will be contacted to ascertain if they would still like to receive a receipt for income tax purposes or have their donation refunded.”

Closing the centre will have a substantial impact on the majority of Naramata businesses, according to Julius Bloomfield, who operates the Naramata Heritage Inn and Spa and is a former owner of the Station pub.

He estimates the 5,000 people who went for retreats and classes at the Centre probably spent about $200 each at local restaurants, wineries, stores and other businesses. That’s a total economic impact of $1,000,000, according to Bloomfield, who adds that he is probably underestimating the value.

Bloomfield said Naramata businesses already experienced losses when the strike closed down the Centre last year.

“I know, just from talking to other business owners, that last year was a tough year for some of us,” said Bloomfield.

Picket lines went up in May 2014 at the centre as workers protested an attempt to contract out some of their jobs. The Centre continued to operate for a short time with replacement workers, but closed its doors and began cancelling bookings by the end of May.

Lois Huey-Heck works at the Centre, developing programs. An artist and author of The Spirituality of Art, she has been coming to the Centre for more than 30 years, both to take part and to lead retreats and workshops. Huey-Heck said that though there are other retreat centres, Naramata has a special energy.

“There has been a particular flavour and sensibility to the programs and retreats here. There is something about being able to build on a very long history,” she said. “I always had a sense that the land and the place here holds people in their spiritual work and their spiritual journey.”

There is something about the quietness, according  Huey-Heck, who said that it’s become almost an annual pilgrimage for many people.

“We are in our 68th year, so there is a lot of memories, people that came regularly and those that just have a wonderful memory of the place,” said Anderson. “It is a sacred place and we hope it is going to remain a sacred place.”

The Centre at Naramata was founded in 1947 as a conference and educational centre of The United Church of Canada. It remains affiliated with the church, though the Naramata Centre Society owns and operates the facility.  The future of the Centre’s land and buildings, as well as a loan from the B.C. Conference of the United Church of Canada, secured on the property, still need to be addressed by the society and the B.C. Conference.

“Whether the place is sold or not, that is to be determined. That hasn’t been discussed at this point,” said Anderson. “We have been working hard to keep it as a retreat centre, the way it was. Now something will have to change and we just don’t know what that is yet.”

The society will continue its work, according to Anderson, and prepare for an annual general meeting, which needs to be held before the end of June.