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Alberta community builds a legacy

DEMMITT, Alta. — The Demmitt community is breathing easier these days after years of tension, persistence and sweat.

It’s been two years since they built the grandiose Demmitt Hall, an energy efficient, straw walled and timber-framed community centre in one of the Peace Region’s most secluded areas.

It’s a project some believed would never get built. They thought it was too big for their little community, too outside-the-box and too isolated to bring in enough people from larger towns and cities.

However, there were others like Peter von Tiesenhausen who believed in the hall project.

“This has been one of my wildest dreams,” he said, sitting beside the hall’s crackling fire during a snowy November afternoon.

“I feel like I can sit back and say, ‘OK, we’re OK.’ ”

The idea to build the hall was spurred some 10 years ago when the community debated demolishing the aging and usually vacant Quonset hut built 30 years earlier.

“Everything was collapsing. The building was done and almost all of our members left,” he said.

“You couldn’t rent the hall for $100.”

Members decided it was best to shutter the old space, but von Tiesenhausen realized he needed to increase the membership to convince people a larger space was needed.

That’s where Lance Cornock, the current board chair of the Demmitt Cultural Society, came into the picture. Von Tiesenhausen recruited him to work the sound systems for Demmitt’s new open stage nights, the initiative he had hoped would draw in crowds.

“We needed a way to bring in membership,” he said.

“There’s only 30 or 40 people living in this valley in a four-mile radius, so we needed the help of (Cornock) and other members to spread the word and bring people here.”

Within one year of launching open stage night, the cultural society had about 200 members. People were coming mainly from nearby Beaverlodge, Alta., but some came from other communities in the province and nearby British Columbia.

“People really wanted a place to go out to,” Cornock said. “They wanted live music.”

Now all the cultural society needed was cash, donations and volunteers to get their new community hall off the ground.

Von Tiesenhausen said there was a lot of misinformation during construction.

“People would come here during construction and ask where our straw bale walls were, but they didn’t realize we were going to cover them, so you can only imagine what people were thinking if they just thought this would be built out of straw.”

They got $735,000 in funding from all levels of government, $300,000 cash from corporations and private donors, lumber from the pine trees affected by the pine beetle, a donated crane and countless hours of labour from volunteers.

The building is valued at $2.5 million and was built for $1.3 million, von Tiesenhausen said.

“That really shows how much volunteer work we got.”

As well, the building has been turning a profit for each year since it opened. Money to support the hall comes from weddings, which occur at least once a week during the summer, as well as private functions such as yoga sessions and pizza nights.

“Our costs are pretty low for a space this size,” Cornock said, noting that the hall is equipped with compostable toilets and solar panels.

“But people wouldn’t come here for weddings and events if this was just a box. It all ties together in that this is a welcoming place for people to come together.”

He said the building will serve generations to come.

“It’s a legacy,” he said. “We built it to last and we’re here to stay. Now let’s continue to build community.”

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