Downtown building gets new life

The crane got the final beams in place just before the snow started falling. These were the final exterior touches to a renovation that was really more like a complete rebuild at 1320 3rd Ave.

It is an old building. Long vacant, it was most recently a windshield replacement shop, but it dates back many decades. Now it is home to O'Brien Training and the corporate offices of some partner companies. They were formerly based in the BCR Industrial Site but proprietor Dan O'Brien wanted to be downtown.

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"This is going to be a great fit for us," he said this week as the giant fir posts were set in place in the background, the crowning phase of a six-figure investment in the structure. "It's great to be accessible like we've never been before. Our students can come here, all our partners can come here easily, it's a big step forward for our operation."

The school teaches students of all ages and walks of life how to operate heavy equipment, lay pipelines and drive trucks. They have active industrial sites in the forest for teaching the practical elements of this, so there won't be an influx of skidders and excavators in the business district, but the classroom components, conferences, meetings, exams, air breaks courses, etc. will be done right inside the city core rather than hived off on the outskirts.

O'Brien didn't want to meekly slide into old downtown aesthetic habits. The building he bought has a history, and it was a blank canvas with which to work. During the purchase process he started taking pictures and writing notes of places around the city that had features he liked. The result is a hybrid of the best of Prince George, and the main visual ingredient is wood.

"I got the fir timbers from Timberspan, and all the cedar comes from the Penny area and I got that from Sandy Long at LPL Cedar Sales so local mills did the work using locally obtained wood," O'Brien said. "We've got a bunch of new buildings in downtown Prince George looking good with wood: the Wood Innovation And Design Centre, the new BCGEU building going up, the RCMP building, and if you look around you see a lot of improvements being made to buildings all over the downtown, so it's a great time to be moving in."

He said there were two kinds of downtown landlords right now. "One set of people is giving their buildings a facelift and showing some respect to the residents of the city by improving their property, and you've got the others who have a lot of money and don't want to lift a finger to reinvest in their buildings, they just let it fall apart in front of everybody."

Like a boy with a new toy, O'Brien directs attention across the street to the Maison Furniture building and Kelly O'Bryan's Restaurant. He explained that the restaurant side was one of the city's oldest buildings and was originally a horse stable. The furniture store addition was built originally as a bakery. The horses were used to deliver the fresh bread by wagon. The mural on the east side of the building hints at this history.

That's where his own building comes into the story.

"William Allen was the owner of the bakery and the stables, and when times changed and he switched from horses over to trucks to deliver the bread, he built this building of mine for the trucks," he said. "It's a cool connection to local history. I'm hoping what we're doing to the place will add a lot more years to this place."

He constructed the interior with LED lighting, vaulted ceilings transitioning into roof-level windows for natural light, a high-end heating system, and outdoor illumination features, as well as a secure fenced compound for exterior storage.

In addition to O'Brien Training and Taylor Driving School, the partner businesses that help instruct the students include Bid Right Contracting, Mack Brothers Logging (both doing contract work for West Fraser Timber), and another new aspect of the business O'Brien was not prepared to disclose until next week. All would have some if not all their corporate presence inside the newly revamped location.

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