January 15th, 2021

No money for Chinatown renovations

By Lethbridge Herald on July 8, 2017.

© Lethbridge Herald photo by Tijana Martin An update on the status of the historic Bow On Tong building was presented to Lethbridge City Council, but the fate on the building is still unknown. @TMartinHerald

Cost of permanent stabilization exceeds available funds
Melissa Villeneuve
Lethbridge Herald
The fate of two historic Chinatown buildings is still unknown, as money has run out to permanently stabilize the aging structures. However, the Lethbridge Historical Society remains hopeful the buildings can be restored in the future.
The Bow On Tong and Kwong On Lung, better known as the Manie Opera House, have been owned by Albert Leong and his family for over a century.
The buildings, located at 316 and 318 – 2 Ave S., had to be vacated in July 2013 due to structural instability. The owner, Leong, had to be relocated as well, and is now living in the Castle Apartments.
It was supposed to be a temporary solution while structural repairs were done, but restoration is now at a standstill.
An update on the buildings’ status was provided at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
More than $106,000 has been invested into repairs to date. However, permanent structural stabilization work is required, at a cost of about $175,000. This exceeds available funding left, which is about $27,000.
In 2013, the Downtown BRZ contacted the Alberta Historical Foundation, which suggested some options for grants to assist with the restoration efforts. Main Street Program funding of $90,000 for 2014 and 2015, and Alberta Historical Resources Foundation grant support of over $26,000, was provided to assess the structural stability of the properties, to undertake cleanup efforts, for material relocation and storage, and complete basic stabilization work to prevent the collapse of the buildings.
Another $9,500 was awarded through the “This Place Matters” competition and $7,500 from a fundraiser by the Save Chinatown Committee, which can be used towards historic interpretive elements of the buildings.
“The building itself is actually stable, but it requires extensive, further renovations and stabilization efforts to ensure that it will continue,” said Jeff Greene, the City’s director of Planning and Development. “So at this point of time there has been some shoring that’s been put into place in a number of the walls and additional concrete work in the basement to try and ensure the building won’t continue to deteriorate.
“But that won’t last without further stabilization efforts taking place.”
As a result, no further work will be done on the buildings as there isn’t sufficient funds.
“We still know the buildings are important and we still would like to see them saved, but right now it’s at a standstill,” said Belinda Crowson of the Lethbridge Historical Society. Fundraising has been one of the major issues, she explained.
“We haven’t been able to figure out… it’s very hard for a society such as the LHS to fundraise for a privately-owned building. So it’s one of those loopholes, and I understand people don’t want public money going into a private area, but it makes this a difficult situation.”
The City hasn’t contributed any money into the project, so it has no liability at this time, the City Solicitor confirmed. Right now, the city’s involvement has been limited to issuing permits and ensuring the safety of the public.
However, “if the buildings continue to deteriorate and at some point become a liability, it could end up falling on the city, much like the result of the Oliver building,” said the City Solicitor.
The assessed value of both buildings continues to decrease. In 2013, the Bow On Tong was valued at $136,800, and the Manie Opera House at $112,000. This year, they each were valued around $95,000.
Two offers to purchase have been submitted to the buildings’ owner, but neither were accepted.
“He is the owner of the building so it has to be a decision that works for him,” said Crowson.
Both buildings were designated as Municipal Historic Resources in 2014. uilt in 1907 (Manie Opera House) and in 1919 (Bow On Tong), the buildings are significant for their association with the development of Lethbridge’s Chinatown district.
In the mid 20s, the Bow On Tong Co. apothecary and Chinese goods store was established by Way Leong, who emigrated from China. The store was operated by the Leong family for decades until the building had to be evacuated four years ago following heavy rain.
Although restoration is at a standstill, Crowson said what has been done has been a success.
“The building was at a place where a storm was going to take it down. The stability has been greatly enhanced,” she said. “A lot of work has been done and they are much more advanced than they were. So there’s a hiccup here, and many buildings go through those sort of hiccups. It doesn’t mean it’s lost, it just means it needs new opportunities.”
There are currently no fundraising initiatives in the works. However, if anyone has any ideas, they are welcome to contact the LHS at 403-320-4994.
Money so far has been raised through two different competitions, a fundraising variety show at the Yates Theatre, and matching government grants. The challenge is they cannot write a tax receipt for donations for a privately-owned building.
“It’s very difficult and it’s a lot of money to try raising by a small Society,” said Crowson, who spoke to Leong a few months ago
She said he’s frustrated as well, as he was hoping it might be a six month project and that he would be able to move back in.
“We really at the beginning thought we could write grants no problem, but it’s not as easy as we thought. When it’s privately-owned, a lot of it is on the owner. And when the owner doesn’t have the money, it’s a tricky thing.”
One of the ideas previously brought forward is to establish an interpretive centre in the buildings. This has galvanized a lot of research into the Chinese community, she explained.
“So there’s another success that has come out of this, is a lot of the stories and history that might have been lost is available now for all sorts of things. It’s not the success of saving the building yet, but we have to see success where we can find it as well.
“I guess I work in historical terms… A lot of people see this as a setback. I see it as one more part of this building’s history. Something will probably come forward and we’ll figure it out. It’s just trying to figure out how to figure it out.”
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