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Only gay community centre between Vancouver and Calgary closes July 31

Property owner’s refusal to renew, and lost revenue, close Okanagan Pride Centre

Scott Tobin's rainbow mural on the side of the Okanagan Pride Centre. Credit: Nathaniel Christopher

The Okanagan Pride Centre — the only gay community centre between Vancouver and Calgary — will close on July 31 after the property’s owner chose not to renew the lease and changes to liquor licence enforcement limited the centre’s revenue.

“The building is an older building, and the owners wanted to redevelop it into a boutique hotel,” says Okanagan Pride Society president Wilbur Turner. “They have always renewed the lease, but when it came up in April they said they would not renew it because they did not want to tie themselves into another year because they wanted to redevelop it.”

The centre is located at 1476 Water St in downtown Kelowna, about a block away from Lake Okanagan.

It was established in July 2008 with a $30,000 grant from the We’re Funny That Way Foundation, which donated the proceeds from a Toronto comedy festival to queer charities in smaller cities and towns throughout Canada.

The centre has provided regular events and services for the queer community since it opened, including a weekly youth group and a biweekly transgender group.

Until recently, the centre also hosted a weekly licensed social event, which became its primary source of income. But when the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB) began to enforce the rule that restricts special-occasion licences to two a month, the centre became unable to cover costs.

“The rules have not changed; the province has always limited special-occasion licences to two per month,” says a spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice, adding that the special-occasion licence was never intended to be used for weekly events.

“They are primarily intended for special events, such as weddings, family celebrations, tournaments, that are hosted by individuals or organizations that do not have a liquor licence,” the spokesperson explains, noting that a new process ensures LCLB staff are made aware of all special-occasion licence applications.

Under the old process, LCLB staff were notified only about large events, rather than smaller routine events, unless organizers were requesting an exception to the general rules.

“This change is part of our duty to apply the rules consistently,” the spokesperson says.

Turner says the centre’s closure will not mean an end to gay programming and services in Kelowna. He is adamant that there will be another centre and says the Okanagan Pride Society will look for another space after this year’s Pride celebrations in August.

He notes that he has already been approached by local businesses. “Two clubs have come to us and said they will offer us space for licenced events,” he says. “They will hold the licence, so whenever we want to book events for the community we can do that at their locations and they will give us a percentage of sales for fundraisers.

“Also, Lake City Casino heard we are closing down the centre, and they have offered to let us use a 200-capacity function room with pretty much everything we need to hold big dances with stages, a sound system, lights and a bar,” Turner adds.

The closure of the Water Street centre also means the loss of a prominent rainbow mural on the side of the building. The mural, which depicts all eight colours of Gilbert Baker’s 1978 rainbow flag, was painted by Kelowna artist Scott Tobin in 2009.

Turner says the mural will be preserved through photography, as well as the original canvas painting that Tobin produced before the mural.

“I spoke with the city’s cultural manager, and she said they still had the original artwork that the artist did and that she would try to get it to us,” he says. “So that’s pretty cool. And one of the other city managers called me and is actually working with me to see if the city has space for the centre.”