SURREY — One section of 104th Avenue in Surrey was a lively place last Saturday (Aug. 27) as 300 volunteers with a local church threw a big party of sorts.
Close to 1,000 backpacks filled with school supplies were given to kids and families who visited Kwantlen Park Secondary, where those with Relate Church’s Adopt-A-School program set up for a second year of giving. The music was pumping, food was cooking, free haircuts were happening and the place was jumping with community spirit.
Meanwhile, just nine blocks to the east, a large brick building sat eerily quiet, the way it has for most of the past 18 years. A few lights illuminated the building’s empty interior, moss grew on some exterior stairwells and glass from broken windows dotted the ground. A blue metal gate surrounded the entire block-long structure, all 260,000 square feet of it, built in 1998 and relegated as vacant pretty much ever since.
Back at the school, Loretta Hibbs dreamed of one day hosting such big community events at 104 Avenue Centre, located between 141st and 142nd streets.
“That’s where we’d love to be with an event like this,” Hibbs said with a wide smile as she walked through the bustling gymnasium.
“We want everything to be in the one location, or most of our activities.”
Hibbs is the executive director of City Dream Centre, an expansion of the church’s Relate Community Care program that brought truckloads of donated goods, along with services, to Kwantlen Park on Saturday.
PICTURED: Volunteers Eva Torcuera, Gemma Ramos and Telly Acuba give away backpacks at Relate Church event at Kwantlen Park Secondary on Saturday, Aug. 27. Photo by Tom Zillich
The organization wants to build City Dream Centre somewhere in Surrey, in order to help the city’s “underprivileged and marginalized” residents get the food, clothing, job skills, health care and housing they require.
The proposed facility is modelled on Los Angeles’ Dream Center, founded in 1994 as a volunteer-driven organization that “finds and fills the needs of over 80,000 individuals and families each month,” according to its website, Dreamcenter.org.
The facility’s mission is to “reconnect isolated people to God and a community of support by providing human services that address immediate and long-term needs in the areas of homelessness, hunger, poverty, addiction, education and human trafficking.”
In Surrey, a top need for City Dream Centre is securing a large building to house its operations, including space for residential programs. Trucks for a mobile food hamper program are also needed, along with warehouse space and buses for transporting people to and from the facility.
A four-page glossy brochure touts the place as one “where hope, dignity & value exist for everyone.”
Several months ago, Hibbs visited 104 Avenue Centre to film a six-minute video about plans for City Dream Centre. At the time, she and John Burns, the senior pastor at Relate Church, met with representatives of Donald Pitt, an Arizona lawyer who bought the building in the early 2000s and has sought a single tenant for it ever since.
(SCROLL TO BOTTOM OF STORY TO SEE VIDEO)
Prospective renters have come and gone, including Fraser Health, Simon Fraser University and the RCMP, but all deals eventually collapsed.
Optimistically, Hibbs (PICTURED) believes the building is a perfect fit for City Dream Centre, but the organization doesn’t have the funding to lease it – not yet, anyway.
“We know floor-by-floor what we would do with that building,” Hibbs told the Now.
“But anyway,” she added, “we are working with the city to see where we could land, maybe there’s a different building, something else, a better place, we don’t know.”
In addition to working to secure charitable status for the organization, Hibbs has shared her vision for City Dream Centre with the mayor, MPs, MLAs and business leaders in Surrey. They include Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman, who said she supports the project — especially if it brings sustained activity to 104 Avenue Centre.
“It has been frustrating to see that building sit empty, because it actually skews our office-space statistics,” Huberman told the Now. “You can’t have an empty building sitting there for nearly 20 years, and so we’ve been back and forth with the contractor, the real estate agent, and we’ve been trying to send them leads, but they only want one tenant, and one tenant will not take 300,000 square feet.”
When she met with City Dream Centre officials in July, Huberman encouraged them to produce architectural renderings detailing their vision.
“Those are in the works,” Hibbs noted.
Ultimately, the City Dream Centre concept in Surrey resonated with Huberman.
“It’s very comprehensive,” she said, “and it’s designed to help people get back into society and be productive members of our economy. I think it’s quite innovative and visionary, and I think the square-footage of the building could be a good fit for the Dream Centre.”
Contacted by the Now on Monday, real estate agent Ron Emerson detailed the present status of 104 Avenue Centre, originally known as The Asian Centre before Pitt bought and upgraded the building.
“The owner (Pitt) doesn’t want to sell it,” Emerson said on the phone from his Vancouver office. “We’ve had a bunch of people look at it, including the church group, but it’s difficult to find a tenant for that whole building, and that’s one of the issues in the Surrey market.”
At Christmastime last year, Emerson and Tom Powers, Pitts’s son-in-law, met with Relate Church’s Hibbs and Burns to discuss a potential lease deal.
“Loretta seems to think it’s a good fit for the building,” Emerson said, “and that’s a very specialized use, and it’s not something that’s really bankable, so we said to her, ‘You’ve got to get your financing in place and come back to us.’ That’s where it’s at, but that was quite a few months ago now, and we haven’t heard from them for quite awhile.
“They’d have lots of activity in there,” Emerson added, “so they’d have to get all their approvals first, I’m sure. It’d be pretty unique to the market, absolutely.”
When she spoke to the Now, Hibbs was somewhat reluctant to shed light on her organization’s desire for City Dream Centre to open at 104 Avenue Centre, for fear of plans falling through.
Not reluctantly, though, she talked passionately about helping kids who “age out” of foster care, those exiting prison, people with addictions and others “who need a safe place to be and learn.”
Many of the programs currently operated by Relate Church, including parenting, ESL and life-skills classes, would be taken to the City Dream Centre facility – wherever and whenever it opens in Surrey.
“We’re going to take them to a larger scale and bring them into one facility and have residency, all those things that take it to a fully realized Dream Centre, as part of the network,” Hibbs said.
“For now, we’re going to run it out of Relate (located at 6788 152nd St., Surrey), until we can get a building, other than the residential component, but ideally I would love to see it open in 2017 with an actual building. But I don’t know, right now it’s about the finances and getting sponsors for it.”
Back at Kwantlen Park Secondary, a number of sponsors were lined up to feed and outfit attendees, including Maple Leaf Foods, The Keg, Coca-Cola, Save-on-Foods and Dempster’s Bread.
The church’s Adopt-A-School program has given students and families in need a boost since it was launched in 2009, but the “Back to School” event, a one-stop shop for the collection of donated goods, is only in its second year.
“We sent out 7,000 flyers telling people in this area about the event,” Hibbs said. “We had about 150 people lined up here in the morning, and then it builds by noon and it gets really busy in here. It just shows that there’s a real need. Same with the Dream Centre, because we know there’s a need for it. We just have to make it happen.”