Wanda Chow - Burnaby NewsLeader Published November 14, 2013 at 12:00 PM

For the first time in many decades in North Burnaby, this year's Remembrance Day didn't end at the legion hall on Hastings Street.

For generations, after the ceremony at the Confederation Park cenotaph, the parade of members from Royal Canadian Legion Branch No. 148 would march back to the hall for drinks.

"It used to last well into the evening whereas yesterday it was over by four o'clock," said the branch's president, Dave Taylor, on Tuesday.

This year, Burnaby city hall donated space at Confederation seniors centre for the post-ceremony function as the branch closed its 77-year-old hall at the end of 2012 when it laid off its four staff.

"At least we had a place," said a pragmatic Taylor, 65. "It was different."

But while the hall at 4356 Hastings St. is likely only weeks away from being demolished, the branch continues to operate on a shoestring budget as it awaits a brighter future in a brand-new building.

The branch's office is being operated temporarily out of a member's spare bedroom.

The hall is open, on a minimal electricity bill, for several hours a day while Taylor and other volunteers try to sell off remaining furniture, medical equipment, ducting, light fixtures, even items from their family members' estates to raise some money for the branch.

All its memorabilia is in storage, but otherwise, "after 77 years you accumulate a lot of stuff," Taylor said.

Things are looking up for the Legion's Branch 148 in North Burnaby after years of financial difficulties, says Dave Taylor, the branch's president.

As for how the branch got to this point, Taylor is adamant that the slide started over a decade ago when smoking bylaws were enacted. After spending $50,000 to build a smoking room to comply with one set of regulations, the rules were changed again about three years later, banning smoking altogether from the premises.

"It's a sad fact but your smokers are your biggest drinkers and best tippers," said Taylor, who joined the legion branch 21 years ago and has been president for the past eight.

Then as its members aged and their numbers dwindled, the value of the branch's property kept rising, along with their tax bills. Taylor made a couple attempts to get a break on their taxes from Burnaby council, to no avail.

And with their annual property tax bill in the $40,000 range in recent years, the branch's reserves finally ran out.

In 2011, the branch's members voted to defer paying the taxes that year. "If we'd paid them we would've closed the doors."

The next year, they still couldn't pay, and penalties were being added to the bill.

That's when they started contacting developers.


Taylor recalled they started with eight to 10 developers, then eventually narrowed it down to one, Richmond-based Epta Development Corporation, whose projects include two nearby on Hastings—Montage at Delta Avenue, and Madison at Madison Avenue.

"He was the only one that came up with having us in a separate building," noted Taylor of Angelo Tsakumis, Epta's vice-president of development.

All the other proposals they received would have resulted in the legion's facility being located in the back of the building with a view of the alleyway.

Instead, Epta will build the legion branch a four-storey building of its own, which will include not only a canteen and office but retail and two floors of office space it can rent out as a continuing source of income.

Epta will pay all the back taxes and even some cash to the branch in the deal, with the amount to be determined once the cost of all the interior finishings of the new building is worked out.

In exchange, Epta gets to build a 28-unit market condominium project with 5,600 square feet of retail space on the rest of the property.

In the 1990s, the branch had put together a redevelopment plan of its own, but it would have left them with a mortgage and it was in the middle of the leaky condo crisis.

"This time we're not putting any money out," and there's less risk, Taylor said.

The new hall will be much smaller, with only 100 liquor seats compared to the total 420 it had at its old two-storey building, Taylor said, a fact that that has been met with frustration among some members.

But he said they're following advice they've received from consultants at legion headquarters—"You don't build for that special day, you've got to build for what you're going to do on average."

The challenges faced by Branch No. 148 over the years are common among legion branches across the country.

Epta designed a project with rental income opportunities that hopefully will make the branch self-sufficient in perpetuity, Chris Tsakumis, Epta's vice-president of sales and marketing, told the NewsLeader.

Having a separate building was key to giving the branch the autonomy they wanted, "to control their own destiny on their own property as opposed to being integrated into an overall redevelopment that would not give them the flexibility that they have under this scenario," Tsakumis said.

"It's a little outside-of-the-box thinking," he said. It was the sort of creativity needed to accommodate both the legion's need to sell their property and their desire to maintain a presence in the community.

Other legion branches have taken notice.

Tsakumis said the North Burnaby project has been a catalyst for other legion branches contacting Epta about similar opportunities on their properties.

"It's a structure that allows the legions to remain in place with their own income and economic model that will allow them to survive forever so they don't have these concerns 20 years down the road or 50 years down the road again."

Burnaby city hall has been supportive so far in the planning process, he said, and a public hearing for the project's rezoning application is expected sometime in the new year. If all goes as planned, construction could start sometime in the first half of 2014 and be completed by late 2015.

As for Taylor, it's a bittersweet time. As president, he's presiding over the hall's demolition.

"I'll be here, hopefully, when we open the doors."

Future looking bright for North Burnaby Legion branch
Burnaby Newsleader