After they bought the fabled Grouse Nest property in East Sooke last June, Brian and Sharon Holowaychuk started work on realizing their vision for the site.
They got all the preliminaries done to turn the ramshackle former resort, which shut down decades ago, into something special. The blueprints show a swank restaurant at the water’s edge, an art gallery on the second level with a stunning event space overlooking Sooke Basin, and conversion of the attached six-bedroom residence into a rental home.
Thousands of dollars worth of building permits were issued and tear-down work on the 1960s-era décor was just getting underway on the huge renovation project.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The couple felt compelled to do something, so in short order they decided to make a major pivot. The new plan is to refurbish the place to welcome as many Ukrainian refugees as possible and accommodate them by any means necessary. It would provide a refuge for as long as needed from the war.
The 33 hectares of secluded wilderness, with its moss-shrouded rainforest and hundreds of metres of waterfront, is about as far as it’s possible to get from the tanks, artillery fire and upheaval driving millions of Ukrainian people from their homes.
Renovation projects always change on the fly, but the abrupt Grouse Nest reset could be one of the most dramatic.
The original plan is now shelved indefinitely. The Holowaychuks are expediting work on what they are calling the Ukrainian safe haven project. (Ukrainiansafehaven.org)
“Both my grandparents came from Ukraine as babies,” said Brian Holowaychuk.
“The people being ruthlessly attacked by Russia are just like my entire family. So my wife and I have decided to put our plans on hold and pivot to use the Grouse Nest to provide a home for some of the soon-to-be millions of women and children who are fleeing this insane war.”
The couple have lived in Victoria for years. His first career was in Edmonton, turning Axe Music into a major professional music and entertainment supply business.
It was sold to Long & McQuade four years ago and he has been involved in various Victoria businesses and development projects since then.
Sharon is a life-long painter with ties to the arts world.
“Brian is Ukrainian, our children are Ukrainian,” she said. “These people have done nothing wrong.”
She pictures women, children and older people moving in. “They can live here in peace and wander around and wait and see whether they can go back or want to go back.
“Rather than being an individual in someone’s home … here they would have each other. So they can babysit each other’s children. They can talk about it. It would be like a group therapy kind of thing because they know what they are going through.
“It’s quiet here. There’s nature for them to decompress.”
They have briefed the Ukrainian Canadian Cultural Society of Vancouver Island and Brian Holowaychuk said they are making connections for ongoing support.
On a tour of the tranquil site, he said the original plan was for a non-profit art gallery and an event space that would be donated to charities for fundraising events.
“The whole idea - I always wanted something like this just to be able to share it. And these people (Ukrainians) deserve it more than anybody right now. It would be good for their souls.”
Sooke Mayor Maja Tait said Tuesday she got a quick briefing on the new version of the project. Her first reaction was: “This is outstanding. We’re all thinking of what we can do beyond flying the flag. I’ve seen how Sooke responded to the pandemic and this is an example of people doing their part.”
The property is zoned appropriately and the permitting for the original plan could be adjusted for the emergency response now being put together.
A refurbished lodge and a much newer cabin could house a dozen or so families. Some derelict A-frames could handle more once services are installed. Holowaychuk is open to moving temporary housing on site for still more. He said his goal is to see 100 people waiting out the war there.
The most pressing need now is for skilled trades people to volunteer their services to get the lodge habitable. The couple have leased the property for $1 a year to a new non-profit society. Donations are welcome.
It could be a new chapter no one would ever have dreamed of for the historic property, which is assessed at $7.6 million. It was originally owned by the pioneer Gillespie family. An early-1900s cottage turned over time into a summer retreat for Victoria’s gentry, according to a Sooke Mirror account a few years ago. A lodge burned down in 1950, and was replaced with timber felled and milled on site.
The property was later bought by an intriguing Egyptian millionaire from Switzerland who spent a fortune refurbishing the lodge in 1964. He imported artisans from Germany who did strikingly original woodwork inside and out. The place is full of custom trim, dated luxury touches and hints of former grandeur. Some mid-century celebrities spent time there, including John Wayne and Lorne Greene. Later there were rumours the owner’s family used it as a secure getaway to avoid Israeli intelligence agents who were pursuing his involvement in weapons development.
The Grouse Nest resort has been dormant for decades through intermittent ownership changes, some of whom started development proposals that went nowhere. It’s been the periodic topic of speculation and intrigue ever since. Occasional media references often include the word “mysterious.”
There’s nothing mysterious about the Holowaychuks’ determination to help desperate Ukrainian people. The only question now is whether they can pull off this ambitious project.