A crucial link to Napanee’s past and present was lost in the early morning of Oct. 23 when the Agricultural Memorial Community Centre was destroyed by fire.
Opened in 1955, the building originally known as the Napanee Community Centre served many purposes over the years-too many to fit in this space.
Like any major endeavour in a small community, getting a facility of that size built in Napanee took many years of hard work long before it came to fruition. Leading the charge was Bruce McPherson-former owner of Gibbard’s Furniture. Tragically years of hard work were undone in a matter of hours as the building was reduced to rubble by the blaze. The fire was said to have started at 3 a.m. and by 7 a.m. it was just a shell of its former self.
In its heyday the arena on York Street was a crown jewel of the community. It famously hosted the Detroit Red Wings twice for an exhibition game, once in 1958 and again in 1959. Amazingly this wasn’t alumni players or even held in the offseason-it was the current Red Wings who made the trip on an off day of their NHL regular season to play the Intermediate A Napanee Comets. Chalk that up to something that would never, ever happen today. Not surprisingly, the Red Wings won both games handily.
In 1989 the arena was home to the upstart Napanee Raiders, who still called the barn their home in 1993 when they captured the all-Ontario Schmalz Cup championship. All told the Raiders have played just about as many games on York Street as they have at the Strathcona Paper Centre. In a neat bit of local history, a young Avril Lavigne would regularly sing the national anthem at Raider games at the Community Centre and then perform makeshift mini concerts during intermissions.
Though the opening of the SPC made the Community Centre somewhat obsolete-indeed it was actually the fact the latter was a wooden structure and viewed as a fire risk that helped facilitate the need for a modern facility-the Community Centre never stopped serving the community. More recently the building has been referred to as the ‘old arena’, even though it was still very much in use right up until last month’s fire. From pickleball, to the Napanee Sea Cadets, 4-H clubs, indoor soccer, various wrestling events, exhibitions, roller skating and Napanee Fair events, the arena was never really ‘retired’.
After decades of loyal service to the community, the building deserved a much better send-off than it got. That the fire is considered suspicious is all the more painful-it didn’t have to happen. The brave men and women who responded to the call, putting themselves in harm’s way to preserve the neighbouring homes and curling club, are to be commended. The sudden loss means very little from the building could be preserved as a keepsake.
It’s much too soon to speculate what will happen with the suddenly vacant lot on York Street. (Though it would make an ideal location for an indoor pool).
For now we’ll mourn the loss of a building that, one way or another, held a lot of sentimental value to many generations.