Distillery revamp into sports centre proves Bridgetown’s can-do spirit still alive
© Heather Killen
Terry Saunders, soccer player John Zimmermann, and Shaun Saunders are kicking around some ideas about building a sports centre in Bridgetown. The old distillery on Bay Road is coming alive as an elite sports facility with indoor lawn bowling, an artificial ice surface, indoor soccer field, and walking track.
By Heather Killen
They’ve already done what a lot of people said couldn’t be done.
Shaun Saunders and Jeff Bishop bought the old distillery plant on Bay Road last year from the Town of Bridgetown with plans of creating a multi-sports centre. Saunders said he and his brother Terry have been talking about doing something like this for 10 years, but they always ran into the same old thing.
“People said, you can’t do that,” said Shaun Saunders. “It’ll never work.”
Trojan Sport Society, a nonprofit group they created, now owns and manages the building and is working to transform one of Bridgetown’s empty reminders into a path forward into a brighter future.
When the Saunders brothers talk about the town they grew up in, they start with the rows of banners and trophies hung with pride in their high school corridors. This was a town known for its industry, as well as its athletic and academic excellence, they say.
And whenever the path of decline is traced from the stately past to recent notoriety, the story people tell often opens with the closing of the distillery. Over the past 30 years as each Bridgetown industry closed its doors, more people seemed to drift away.
Saunders guesses the town has probably lost about 700 jobs over the years. To hear people talk about it, hometown pride was dwindling with the opportunities.
For years, the brick distillery stood like a mausoleum at the edge of town. There was talk at one time of turning it into a movie set, while others thought it could make a good call centre, he said. The library headquarters and the VON rented space there and the food bank moved in a few years ago.
Saunders said when they heard it was going up for sale last year they worried what would happen if another company moved in making big promises and leaving when the government funding ran out.
“The problem is that these big companies get all kinds of tax breaks and incentives for coming here,” said Saunders. “And then when the tap is turned off, they pack up and go. When they go, the jobs are lost with them. We wanted to make sure this place is locally owned and controlled. We’re not going anywhere, we’re in this for the long haul.”
While there are two or three offices spaces still available for rent, the 70,000 square foot building on Bay Road that most Bridgetownians have viewed for years as mostly empty, is now mostly full.
The back area has been converted from its former dark, cavernous state into a bright multi-purpose 22,000-square-foot indoor sports centre able to offer indoor lawn bowling, a soccer field, a ball hockey court, a walking track, a place for stationary cyclists to spin their wheels - best of all - one of the largest artificial ice surfaces on the east coast.
The Saunders brothers say they hope this unique surface will put their hometown back on the map as a place of which to be proud. The idea is to eventually build up an international hockey and soccer school for elite high school players.
Throughout the school year about 20 to 40 students will live at the centre if all is approved, according to Terry Saunders. During the day students attend Bridgetown Regional High School, after school they receive athletic training from coaches at the centre.
The Computer Access Site downstairs is another component in the plan helping to ensure extra staff is available during the off hours. A large modern boardroom is also available in the building, offering a comfortable meeting room for staff and visitors.
Attracting even 20 students to the area to attend the local school will help boost enrollment and ensure teaching positions. Saunders added they hope to create 20 full-time and part-time jobs and help generate spin-off business for other area businesses.
“We want our share of elite athletes, but we also want to ensure this facility is open and accessible for the people here,” said Terry Saunders. “Seniors can come here and walk, cyclists can practice here in the winter, and the lawn bowlers also use the space. “
Even a yoga studio is hosted in another part of the building, the center aims to provide something for everyone in the community. Phase 1 of the renovations is nearing completion they said. This summer Bee and B Fitness will be partnering to set up full cardio and weight training equipment in the adjacent space to the indoor courts. A lounge will also be installed in this wing.
The long-term plan is to expand the facility even further with a rock-climbing wall inside and outside develop the surrounding seven acres of land for conditioning, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing.
With the building’s tenants in place, a lighting retrofit completed, hundreds of gallons of paint rolled across the walls, artificial turf and the large synthetic ice surface installed, Saunders’ group has already proven a lot of people are mistaken about what is possible.
“They said you’re going to lose the library and we didn’t,’ he said. “Anytime we told people what we wanted to do with the building, people said no it wouldn’t work. Like, you can’t put a soccer field in there.”
Last year they scored big points in their renovation budget, when officials at Soccer Nova Scotia agreed to give them free artificial turf. Stephen Pottie, former general manager of Soccer Nova Scotia, said in a telephone interview that he has known Terry Saunders over the years and always liked his can-do attitude.
Soccer Nova Scotia was tearing up its artificial turf at the stadium in Halifax and offered it to Bridgetown and another facility on the South Shore. Pottie added while the plan just needed Saunders to drive a flatbed to Halifax and get the turf, things don’t always go according to plan.
“It didn’t matter what problem arose, they had a let’s-solve-it attitude,” he said. “They just didn’t take no for an answer.”
Shaun Saunders added that by the time they found a flatbed, drove to Halifax and had the turf rolled up and ready to go, it was no easy job. But there was no way there were coming home without it.
“We said yes, we can,” he said. “When we had it ready to load they told us, oh no. That’ll never fit on the truck, but it did. I thought, we’re Valley boys. We’ll make it fit.”
If the free turf is a coup for the small town, the artificial ice surface is the real draw. This surface is guaranteed to last about 10 years and enables teams to skate year round. Saunders said there is one disadvantage to this surface; it’s about 25 per cent more resistant than regular ice.
Skaters must learn to change their point of balance, but this downfall is really a blessing in disguise because it conditions a stronger skater, according to Shaun Saunders.
“The artificial ice could take some time to some people to get used to,” said Saunders. “We have to change the mindset of the skaters. They don’t like it at first, you have to get them on it for at least five minutes so they get used to it. It’s harder to skate on the regular ice, so you learn to become a much stronger skater because of it.”