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United Church and Sea to Sky Community Services aim to build 'Caring Place' together

The 15,000 sq. ft., $2 million Downtown Squamish complex will have new church, offices, housing



A proposed office-church-supported housing complex to be shared jointly by Sea to Sky Community Services (SSCC) and Squamish United Church promises to transform social services in the Sea to Sky corridor.

"The Caring Place project", as it is currently known, is expected to cost in excess of $2 million once construction costs are factored in.

The 15,000-sq. ft. four-storey building will replace the current United Church building on 4th Avenue in downtown Squamish. Those driving the project hope to break ground in the fall of 2013 or early 2014, with completion a year later.

Having spoken to the District of Squamish council informally on several occasions, SSCC and United Church representatives will present the project formally at a council meeting in the coming weeks to seek rezoning permission.

The facility will include a new church, with the current church building being transformed into a community hall with an "industrial-sized kitchen," offices, library, other community-use rooms, and supported housing for adults with developmental disabilities. The tiny older church building on the lot will likely be demolished unless a new home can be found for it.

Lois Wynne, SSCC's executive director, said it was an opportunity to create a large complex together that neither organization could do alone.

"One of the first steps was to define the relationship and still have our identity," Wynne said.

"The church needs to have their identity, we need to have our identity at community services as a non-denominational organization, but our missions were quite similar in how we work with communities. It was a nice fit."

It was also the chance, Wynne added, to build a legacy for the community and an asset for both groups.

"It's wonderful! It's all a little scary, too," she said. "Our relationship is unique. The church has this incredible property, five city lots, basically gifting us a portion of that to build our building and to live and work together. It's amazing!"

The conversation between the two started at the board levels around 15 years ago, but was not taken forward. About four years ago the plan was resurrected.

"This time the conversation got a little more serious, a little more real. We've done quite a few steps, we're still a long way but we're actually following a process," Wynne said.

Rev. Karin Millard, the church's minister, said the committee set up to oversee the project meets "every other week" and has gelled as a team. "The church's mission is to share in communities, so that is caring for God's world. They realized that if we remained just a congregation caring for ourselves we are actually not carrying through on what we believe is our mandate," Millard said.

She said the project is her "dream kind of work" as a minister.

"Building this building is, for me, heart, mind and soul — a whole package," she said.

Caring Place is a kind of pilot project for the United Church on a national level. Millard said the church is searching for ways to use its aging properties around Canada to connect better within communities.

"There's outside interest from (the United Church's) Conference, too," she said. "We're pioneers! I don't go to a church event without people asking 'What's going on?'"

Millard believes that slowly establishing their working relationship before the first load of concrete is poured has had a real benefit, including in terms of financing; both will carry out fundraising. One larger public fundraising initiative to support the project will be the United Church's Spring Gala Dinner on June 9 in Squamish, said Millard. The SSCC is starting its capital campaign, approaching foundations and large funders first and taking it to the wider community later this year.

Beyond Squamish, the complex will support SSCC's services elsewhere in the corridor, including Whistler and Pemberton, and the complex will be open to use by their community groups as well. Both main SSCC buildings in those communities are not impacted by the new facility.

"There are a lot of efficiencies, it increases capacity in the corridor. It gives people knowledge of a central place to go," Wynne said.

"We've heard enough history of agencies that haven't taken the time to (learn how to work together). It felt like for the first three years this is what we worked on."

Financial advisers, including Vancity/Squamish Savings, are guiding the process, with a joint building committee consisting of four members of the church, and four from the SSCC to push the project along.

"People are excited about it. We're finding there is a lot of support," Wynne said.

The location is also considered a plus, with close proximity to the Howe Sound Women's Centre and other community groups, Wynne said. And with Squamish expected to double in size within 30 years, the new centre could be an "anchor building" for the town.

A large architect's model of the project is currently on public display at the church.

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