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Clinic offers clean alternative

Drug and alcohol treatment facilities help to diversify economy
Chris Bolster

Location. Location. Location. It’s the mantra of home buyers everywhere and according to an administrator of a local drug and alcohol residential care facility, location is also what makes Powell River perfect for treating addicts. The local economy is getting a boost because of it.

As Powell River struggles with a shrinking industrial base, people-focused, service-oriented businesses in health care and education have been quietly gaining importance in the local economy. Some people call them clean industries, others call them a sustainable future.

“It’s unnerving for us in this town to think that we’ve got nothing to fall back on,” said Melanie Alsager, administrator of Sunshine Coast Health Center, a local drug and alcohol residential care facility for men. “It is a kind of business that can survive here. Powell River has its charms, particularly for health care.”

With its view of Malaspina Strait, the centre sits on a five-acre parcel of seaside land south of town, but as there are no signs advertising its existence, many people drive by the centre without realizing it is there. Alsager and her husband purchased the property in 2005 from her mother who had been converting the facility from a mid-sized residential care facility for people with mental disabilities into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre.

The government-licensed facility has room for 30 patients in regular care and four in detox. First-time patients can spend from 30 to 90 days in care depending on their situation and go through intensive counselling sessions to help them deal with their addictions. The facility also offers clients a sober living program, which allows additional time to transition back into daily life.

Patients at the centre come from diverse backgrounds, but all are coping with traumatic events in their lives, Alsager said. “Addiction is not a character flaw and they’re not criminals.” A large number of her clientele are combat veterans, but patients come from all professions. “Cops, lawyers, doctors, veterans,” she said. “The list goes on. We have seen at least one of every profession out there. The statistic that the government uses is 87 per cent of people who are addicted work full-time. That’s certainly the case with our clientele.”

Powell River is a safe town to have people who are at risk, regardless of whether they are addicted, mentally challenged or mentally ill, said Alsager. “There’s some safety lent to this place because there’s no through highway. It’s a good location because Powell River is removed from the city.”

While Campbell River has a similar background as Powell River, it is a centre that connects the northern end of Vancouver Island to the bigger cities of Nanaimo and Victoria. It attracts drugs and prostitution. She calls the phenomena of these towns, which have built up around a main highway, “cities without souls.”

“Powell River is different because we have had to build community here. We’re like a mainland island.” The relative isolation of the Upper Sunshine Coast means that the community has its own hospital, while places like Qualicum Beach and Parksville don’t, she added.

Cost for private addiction treatment across the province ranges from as low as $50 per day up to over $500 per day. “We’re at the very top end in BC,” said Alsager. “We see people who can afford this place.” Treatment at the center can range from $395 per day up to $550 per day depending on the length of stay and if the patient wants a private room. An average stay at the health centre is 45 days and doctors usually treat a couple hundred men each year.

Sunshine Coast Health Center is not the only drug and alcohol treatment facility in town. Dr. Jacques duToit, started up his own nine-bed drug and alcohol facility for women, called Seaside Wellness Centre for Women, in 2010.

Sunshine Coast Health Center employs about 30 people and most jobs are “permanent part-time or better,” said Alsager. “We try to match what the government is paying, so we can get high quality staff.”

Alsager said most of the employees at the health centre were from Powell River and she only has to recruit counsellors from outside because there aren’t a lot of masters level clinic counsellors living in Powell River.

Shopping locally is important for Alsager, so whenever possible she uses local suppliers. The health centre buys food and medical supplies from businesses in town.

Without air service from Pacific Coastal Airlines, operating the treatment facility would be more difficult and the health centre helps patients organize their travel to Powell River whenever they can.

“Our air service is a necessary tool for the delivery of medical services,” said Spencer Smith, vice-president of Pacific Coastal. “We help transport doctors and patients around, which helps make these services possible.”

Clients at the centre do interact in the community. “We do a lot of activities with the guys,” Alsager said. “Even though we have a gym and a swimming pool, the clients still come into town and play golf, go swimming and go shopping at Town Centre Mall.”

Alsager said clients at the health centre spend a lot of money in the community, especially when families come to visit. “They rent cars at the airport. They book rooms in the hotels and [bed and breakfasts] around town. They’re eating in the good restaurants. Hundreds of family members are coming to visit here.”

Clothing shop owner Ron Armitage has had the opportunity to get to know some of the clients from Sunshine Coast Health Center when they have come into Armitage Mens Wear in Town Centre Mall.

“There’s a lot of young guys there,” he said. “They might be a little shy at first, but pretty soon they feel right at home and come over to say hello.” Armitage said that he’s happy to have them as customers because they often spend quite a lot of money in his shop.

“I had a guy come in last night and drop 550 bucks,” he said.

Bed and breakfast owners in town also have noticed that they have had more business during the “shoulder season,” and even during the winter months.

“We have had, over the last year and a half, five or six people stay who were visiting people in the health centre,” said Paul Fridman, owner of Hilltop Bed and Breakfast on the Highway 101. “They’re great to deal with.”

Marie Coe, who owns Ocean Point Bed and Breakfast on Cortez Avenue, said she also remembers having guests who were visiting family at the health centre. “It’s a bonus to the community,” she said. “They go golfing and go on boat charters.”

Alsager said that a lot of the clients who come to the health centre are from the Lower Mainland, Alberta or even from the United States. “Once they come here and see how beautiful this place is, they often want to come back again just to visit.”

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