Dawson City buys historic bank building
Scarcely a public meeting has gone by since the mid-1990s when someone has not raised the issue of the decaying former CIBC bank building on Front Street and what the City of Dawson was doing to resolve the issues it presents.
Photo by Dan Davidson
SERVICE’S SITE SOLD – The City of Dawson has bought the vacant, historic CIBC building, ending years of uncertainty over its future.
DAWSON CITY – Scarcely a public meeting has gone by since the mid-1990s when someone has not raised the issue of the decaying former CIBC bank building on Front Street and what the City of Dawson was doing to resolve the issues it presents.
No surprise then, that it came up again at the municipal services review public meeting on Jan. 29.
Mayor Wayne Potoroka dodged the question on the perfectly acceptable pretext that it was not actually a municipal services issue, but there were other reasons for not discussing the building that night.
The very next day marked the signing of an agreement between the building’s owner, Michele Palma, and the town.
It resolved an issue which has been a perpetual thorn in Dawson’s historic image ever since the CIBC moved out and into the Dawson Plaza on Second Avenue.
The press release was terse and to the point, but lacking in specifics.
“Dawson City is pleased to announce that it reached an amicable settlement with local businessman, Michele Palma, in respect of the former CIBC bank building located on the waterfront of the Town,” the release said.
“The settlement reached provides for Dawson City to purchase the Building from Mr. Palma. Dawson City appreciates Mr. Palma’s contribution to Dawson City’s history.”
Failing this settlement, the town and Palma would have gone to court in April to settle once and for all the issue which was stirred up by former mayor Peter Jenkins in the summer of 2011.
At that time, he announced that the town actually owned the building (which was sitting on land the territorial government had transferred to the town at the request of former mayor John Steins’ administration) and was going to take it over.
There appeared to be a strong case for his assertion at the beginning of the very public debate.
However, Potoroka and city manager Jeff Renaud said Monday that after $35,000 to $40,000 worth of legal wrangling on the matter, the town’s lawyers’ best advice was that they could easily spend that much again and stand a good chance of losing the case.
“Every indication that we were given was that we had a limited chance of success in court,” Potoroka said.
“We had a stronger case,” Renaud added, “and then as it developed in discoveries, we started getting the sense that our opportunity to win that was slowly eroding.”
So, after a good deal of deliberation, combined with engineering and structural advice as to the worthiness of the building, and advice from a restoration planner, the town made Palma an offer, which he decided to take.
The sale price was $170,000, money taken from the town’s financial reserves.
Renaud said this makes a dent in that administration reserve account, but the town can afford it. The move also takes one of the most negative issues in the community’s public discussion off the table.
This expenditure has no impact on any of the town’s normal departmental spending on regular services.
“You have to weigh out the public good, your chances of success … how much money you’re willing to spend in pursuit of that limited chance of success,” Potoroka said.
There were other possible resolutions to the situation, but one that was most undesirable involved moving the building.
The historic value of the CIBC building rests in the facts that it is an early institutional structure.
It’s one of just a few left in the nation with that particular style of shaped metal cladding, and is the place where the poet Robert Service worked as a teller before he struck it rich with his verse.
If you moved the building, it would lose a lot of its significance right off the bat. It needs to be sitting right next to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board Plaque that defines it.
‘The people of this community now own probably the most significant historic building in town,” Potoroka said.
The mayor’s Facebook page, where the bare-bones press release appeared last weekend, already has 100 “likes” for this posting, and 38 comments that range from “happy dance” to paragraph-long business proposals. Those include everything from moving the bank back into the building to turning it into “a Gold Rush era-themed brew pub with a river view patio.”
That last item isn’t as odd as it might seem, since historic photos show that the building once had a deck/wharf extending out to the river.
Renaud has already received a number of serious proposals from people who want to be involved in restoring the building in some way.
There were discussions two or three years ago within the CIBC regarding the future use of the building, but the bank has refused to comment specifically when officials have been contacted about this.
Renaud has already identified some possible funding sources that might help to finance restoration, including a National Historic Sites Cost Sharing Program, which the federal government has just announced will be continued for another year.
“We’re entering into a new era with this building now,” Renaud said. “We’ve gone through the battles with a local individual to a point where now we’re looking at the rebuild and the restoration.”
The next steps include retaining the services of a restoration architect, creating a plan and applying for grant funding to begin that process. The town hopes to carry out exterior work as early as this summer.