Bridges Cafe is a shadow of its former self.
The restaurant is run by Challenge Community Vocational Alternatives, a non-profit that helps people living with disabilities learn workplace skills.
In the cafe’s old home at Shipyards Park, it employed about 16 people. Since relocating this summer to a trailer on First Avenue, it only employs a few.
Rick Goodfellow, president of Challenge, says the outfit plans to soldier on after shutting down this winter season. But he sees the cafe’s current, diminished form as a big lost opportunity for Whitehorse.
Providing a home to the cafe didn’t cost the city anything, but the impact it had on people that worked there was priceless, said Goodfellow.
“It was amazing, watching some of them that had started out down there with their heads down and in the end it was like they owned the place,” said Goodfellow. “I won’t say it changed their personality, but it certainly changed their self-worth, and you could see it.”
In addition to giving its clients marketable skills, the cafe also provided free, healthy lunches to clients of the Fetal Alcohol Society of the Yukon.
It was also a popular lunch spot for politicians and bureaucrats.
“There was such a mixture of folks down there,” said Goodfellow. “That social inclusion piece was incredible.”
Mayor Bev Buckway was one of their best customers.
“Any time we served pork chops, she was down there,” said Goodfellow. “It was neat to look over and see her with a couple consumers that normally would never get a chance to say hello, let alone sit and eat lunch with her.”
With that kind of support and success, it came as a surprise when the city put the contract for the Frank Slim Building out to tender earlier this summer. The terms of the contract were too much for Challenge. The city wanted the kitchen open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., which was a losing proposition, said Goodfellow.
“We already knew from experience that at quarter after one you could fire a cannon through the place and not hit anybody,” he said. “And the same thing on the weekends, there just wasn’t any traffic down there.”
In the end, Challenge didn’t even put forward a proposal. Instead, they set their sights on the kitchen at the Grey Mountain Room in the Mount McIntyre Recreation Centre.
The idea was to do catering out of the kitchen at the centre. The catering was always the most lucrative part of Challenge’s business and the one that employed the most people, which was important because Challenge always had more people who wanted to work than they knew what to do with, said Goodfellow.
That project never got off the ground, though. It would have required the city to change the use of the building – something that council didn’t have an appetite for.
“Certainly council values what Challenge does but just did not feel that what they were asking was reasonable for the use of that building,” said Mayor Bev Buckway.
Council worried that if the city handed over the kitchen at the Mount McIntyre centre to Challenge that it would lose a considerable amount of use of the Grey Mountain Room, as the kitchen is often used as a staging area for funerals, weddings and other events, she said.
The Frank Slim Building was “kind of a mismatch,” said Buckway.
The city’s goal was to have a “vibrant presence down there,” and that meant offering services for longer hours, she said. There’s a similar problem at the Canada Games Centre, where vendors are required to open early in the morning.
It’s not that the city doesn’t value the social inclusion work that Challenge does, but that’s just one of many considerations the city weighs when making decisions, said Buckway.
“We’re trying to find a balance in the middle, but sometimes it leaves people quite disappointed,” she said.
With winter setting in, Challenge is going to have to shut that location down for the season, but it is working on building a kitchen and a lunch room in its headquarters a block over.
To get that off the ground, Challenge will be working on fundraising over the next few weeks.
Goodfellow hopes that the next mayor and council will be more receptive to the idea of the city taking a more active role to push forward policies that promote social inclusion.
“We’ve got huge problems here that we can’t run away from, and saying we don’t have a social mandate is ludicrous. It’s ludicrous,” he said.
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