AMHERST – It was the worst of times, but also an opportunity for the community to shine.
In late August, Amherst firefighters knew they weren’t receiving the typical fire call when they responded to a report of smoke filling the Dooly’s lounge in downtown Amherst. Several hours later a downtown landmark was destroyed and more than 40 people left homeless when the Windsor and Black Block buildings burned.
“There’s no question it was one of the biggest fires Amherst has seen in a few years,” fire chief Bill Crossman said Monday. “It’s a fire that impacted so much of the community in so many different ways, from government offices and businesses being closed to displacing the police department.”
The impact and aftermath of the fire make it the 2012 Amherst Daily News story of the year.
There were numerous possibilities for the top story including the ombudsman’s report on the financial practices of the Cumberland Regional Development Authority, the visit of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Amherst in early September, municipal elections across Cumberland County and the ongoing debate over the town’s decision to move into the former Dominion Public Building in the heart of the downtown.
“Some things happened that we had no control over, but things were addressed the way we were trained,” Crossman said, adding some valuable lessons were learned from the fire that will change how firefighters respond to major fires. “You always encounter something you don’t expect and there are lessons to be learned. One of the lessons learned from this fire was we have to change our preparedness for the downtown buildings and dealing with those buildings that have sprinkler systems.”
Crossman said the fire was above the sprinklers as well as between the walls and ceilings. Thousands of litres of water was wasted in the sprinklers that could have been used by the department in controlling the fire.
He said he would like to see shutoff valves for the sprinklers located outside the buildings.
Soon after the fire call came in, residents were evacuated from the century-old Victorian Arms apartments. It also wasn’t long before the nearby Amherst police station was vacated with its officers setting up temporary quarters in the fire department.
Within a couple of hours, the blaze built and eventually gutted the Windsor Block. Efforts to save the adjoining Black Block building failed the next day when the wind came up and the flames spread.
Crossman said the community response was incredible.
“That was one of the amazing things we can be most proud of,” the fire chief said. “The support from the community to the firefighters and the victims was just incredible.”
The Canadian Red Cross worked with the Amherst Lions Club to set up a comfort centre and serve the immediate needs of those displaced with the fire, while the Salvation Army collected household items and clothing to help those who got out of their apartments with only what they were wearing.
“It was amazing how the community responded,” Red Cross Amherst service centre co-ordinator Angela Lohnes said. “The community really stepped up from landlords dropping by to let us know what space they had available, to members of the community making food and dropping it off.”
While it was a real tragedy for those impacted by the fire, Lohnes said it was also an opportunity for the community to come together in a crisis.
“So much good did come out of it. People are more prepared. We have 15 new volunteers trained and ready to respond to an emergency.”
Four months after the fire, Lohnes said the service centre is still helping several clients with advice on how to get their bank card or driver’s licence replaced.
“One of the things we saw from that fire was a resurgence of community spirit,” Mayor Robert Small said. “So many people pitched into help in so many ways. It wasn’t just Amherst, it was Cumberland and Westmorland. Everyone pitched it. It’s something that Amherst never tires of is helping others when they’re in need.”
The Cumberland Regional Development Authority was in the news quite a bit in 2012 after the province’s ombudsman questioned the organization’s financial practices. Dwight Bishop said there is evidence the development authority created invoices and obtained money from the province without direct expenditures. He called for a forensic audit with the results being turned over to the police. The province is expected to announce a forensic examination of CRDA early in 2013.
Sprott Power officially opened its $61-million wind project on the marsh near Amherst last summer. The project includes 15 turbines and generates enough electricity to power about 10,000 homes. The turbines began producing electricity in April. Sprott Power hoped to expand its project, but an application to Power Advisory LLC was not successful. It’s still hoping to add a couple of turbines through the COMFIT program.
The curtain went down on the Tantramar Theatre at the former Dominion Public Building at the end of May. The building is now home to Amherst town hall offices, which left the Confederation Memorial Building this fall and moved to Victoria Street. The theatre is still looking for a new home, but recently held its Christmas production at the golf club.
In August, Stephen Harper became the first prime minister since John Diefenbaker to visit Amherst. Harper attended a function in nearby Aulac, N.B. earlier in the day and spoke at a barbecue at Amherst Regional High School that was hosted by Cumberland Colchester Musquodoboit Valley MP Scott Armstrong, who was named the Atlantic caucus chairman.
In October, municipal elections saw the defeat of two sitting mayors, Allen Dill in Springhill and Lloyd Jenkins in Oxford. Max Snow is the new mayor in Springhill and Trish Stewart is now mayor of Oxford. In Amherst, Robert Small was returned as mayor over challenger Wayne Bishop and four of five incumbent councillors were re-elected, while Deputy Mayor Dale Fawthrop was defeated. Lisa Emery became the first female councillor in more than a decade. In Cumberland County, longtime councillor and Deputy Warden Gerald Read was defeated as were fellow incumbents Kathy Redmond and John Reid.
The past year also saw the closure or announced closure of several businesses in Amherst including the Thing5 call centre on Lawrence Street, Zellers in the Amherst Centre Mall, Jungle Jim’s in the Town Square Mall, and Scotsburn Dairy’s Amherst processing centre.