Plans to tear down the observatory building in Fraser River Heritage Park and re-purpose the building material hit a major snag this week.
Habitat For Humanity, Upper Fraser Valley, has withdrawn its involvement with the project after receiving a flood of negative feedback from observatory supporters.
The backlash was so strong that Habitat CEO Doug Rempel told The Record he even received some threats.
“I got some very threatening phone calls. Nobody left their name and number so I couldn’t call back, but I had some phone calls accusing us of doing something unethical, or having some sort of unethical agreement with the city, which is completely unfounded,” he said.
Council voted last month to tear down the building which has been the centre of controversy since December of 2014 when the district gave notice to the Mission Heritage Association (MHA) that it would not be renewing its agreement to maintain the facilities at Fraser River Heritage Park.
Last year, council determined that the observatory project would not move forward – citing concerns over a lack of building permits, possible liabilities and other issues – and the material would be re-purposed. The district also took over the renovation of three other buildings in the park, including the Blackberry Kitchen.
MHA members, who were spearheading all of the building projects, have been vocal in their opposition of the changes ever since.
The most recent controversy began on Sunday when observatory supporters noticed a posting on the Habitat website looking for volunteers to help salvage building materials from the partially completed observatory.
Brian Antonson, president of the MHA, sent out an email suggesting that supporters voice their concerns on the Habitat website.
Several comments were received, some suggesting Habitat should be ashamed, and others threatening to boycott Habitat’s fundraising store. There were also many negative comments on social media sites regarding Habitat’s involvement.
Rempel eventually made the decision to withdraw from the project.
“Because of the public backlash, and it wasn’t a whole lot of people but it was enough, that we thought we should just take a step back and re-evaluate it,” said Rempel.
He didn’t feel any of the threats were valid and he said many of the comments were completely false. Rempel explained he decided to withdraw because he didn’t want to “have this cloud” hanging over Habitat.
At the end of June, it was announced that Habitat for Humanity plans to construct affordable housing in Mission. Council approved the sale of land (located near the intersection of Cedar Valley Connector and Briskham Street) to Habitat for Humanity to support the project.
Some comments have suggested there is a link between the new partnership and Habitat’s involvement with the observatory.
“I didn’t want people spreading rumours that aren’t true,” said Rempel
“We help contractors keep stuff out of the landfill, so that was our big motivation. To make a good thing out of a bad situation,” he added.
Mission Mayor Randy Hawes said council has already made the decision that the observatory has to come down. While they may not be able to re-purpose the material now, “the building comes down anyway.”
Hawes had some strong words for the observatory supporters and how they reacted to Habitat’s involvement.
“The attack on Habitat For Humanity is inexcusable. It’s disgusting and every single one of them should be ashamed of themselves.
“And the comments made on the Habitat For Humanity website, attacking Habitat For Humanity is now a record that they should be ashamed of forever. And it shows what kind of people they are.”
Hawes said they can blame council if they want to, but “don’t blame a society that’s absolutely blameless in this.”
Antonson said he has tried to make it clear that Habitat For Humanity are “not bad people,” calling them “wonderful” and saying nobody can question that they do great work.
As for the negative online backlash, Antonson said that may not have been the best move.
“It may have been a misstep on our part and I’m the guy who initiated that, so I’m the guy responsible for it.”
But he still believes Habitat’s involvement was not a wise choice. He even sent a letter to Habitat’s head office telling them this would result in bad publicity.
“Several people have said this (the letter) is bullying but I was just trying to be honest. People are going to be looking at this and it will not be a good thing for you guys (Habitat),” said Antonson.
When he first heard that Habitat was getting involved in the observatory deconstruction, Antonson said he was shocked. But he also suggested it was a calculated move.
“Very well played on the part of council. I’ve got to say they did a masterful job about this. It’s very politically well-played.
“But pitting one volunteer organization against another, what kind of crafty work is that on the part of council? It’s just not appropriate,” said Antonson.
Hawes said any notion that council is pitting one volunteer group against another is ridiculous and saying so sounds like an act of desperation from the MHA.
“The heritage association, at this point, has nothing to do with the park. Why they keep bringing this back is beyond me. It’s not a healthy thing. The decision was made. It was made by council legitimately even though a couple of people wanted to wait until we had a parks master plan, they certainly did not oppose taking down the building,” Hawes said.
As of Thursday morning, the observatory was still standing. Antonson said all his group can do now is wait and see what happens next.