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rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

Given all the rest that has gone on concerning next June's G8 and G20 gatherings - mysterious crosses on the roads, rumoured submarine sightings, talk of a secret bunker in case of a missile attack - it shouldn't come as much surprise to find an entire block surrounded by police tape.

But this is different; this is real.

On the Thursday night before Thanksgiving, the Empire Hotel - the community's second most-visible landmark after the town hall clock - caught fire and was destroyed.

Locals claim this place was the inspiration for the Joni Mitchell standard, Raised On Robbery:

"He was sitting in the lounge of the Empire Hotel

He was drinking for diversion

He was thinking for himself

A little money riding on the Maple Leafs

Along comes a lady in lacy sleeves

She says let me sit down

You know, drinkin' alone's a shame

It's a shame it's a crying shame..."

No one can say for sure, however - there once being Empire Hotels in Timmins and North Bay and even one in Saskatoon, where she once lived - but here they claim the giveaway line " They were pushing through a four-lane highway," just happened to fit at the time.

Doesn't matter: this Empire has other glory and lots of other stories to fall back on. It was not only the Main Street's main hotel, but also the town's main drinking spot.

I myself worked here briefly as an $80-a-week tap man and could bore you for hours with tales of the man who brought his horse in for a drink, the night the dance had to be cancelled because the band leader broke his fiddle over a patron's head, the wedding reception in the "Ladies & Escorts" side when I had to haul the unconscious groom out of a stall on the "Men's Only" side....

But that was a long time ago.

For the past decade, the Empire has been the love affair of a publicity-shy guy named Dave Keay. He turned the old four-storey building, which had fallen into disrepair, into an apartment block and, for years, has worked six days a week trying to restore the place to its one-time splendour.

Mr. Keay is a bit of a favourite about town: a kindly landlord who takes in all types and most financial conditions, from those who can well afford their handy apartment to those who might otherwise have nothing.

He never locked the front doors. And when he finally brought in a locksmith to remedy the situation, he couldn't follow through on it. The night before, he'd come across a 17-year-old girl sleeping in the stairwell. He'd given her a $20 bill and sent her off for breakfast and, as he told tenant Doug Banwell that morning, "If I lock the door, where's a kid like that going to go?"

"He never locked the door," says Mr. Banwell, a computer consultant who has other options now that his apartment is lost.

Others do not. Mr. Banwell stood with Mr. Keay the night the flames burst through the roof and was there when an exhausted fireman came up and said, "It doesn't look good, Dave - I think we're going to lose the building."

"Dave's reaction," says Mr. Banwell, "was 'Where are all these people going to go?"

The fire was accidental, authorities believe, but cause is not as important as result. Too many of the 100-plus residents had nowhere to go, which had the effect of bringing this little Muskoka town together over something other than G8 and G20 anxiety.

The Salvation Army was instantly there, as expected, to take on those who had nowhere to go. Townspeople brought so many clothes that already, says Mr. Banwell, "we have too much." The local car dealers, hardly going through a banner year of their own, put on a roast beef dinner last night for the residents.

One businessman lent his van to those who were able to retrieve something and had somewhere to take it to. A local optician offered free glasses to anyone who had lost theirs in the flames.

On Saturday morning, Mayor Claude Doughty and Councillor Fran Coleman came to see about setting up a construction trailer in the Empire's parking lot to handle the donations and organize the accommodations search for those still looking.

By the time the G8 gather around this town early next summer, the Empire fire will be but a memory, which is both good news and somewhat unfortunate. There are lessons to be learned here - even by world leaders.

They will, surely, be congratulating themselves on how they saved the world from financial collapse by throwing billions, trillions into their economies. There will be quotes such as the one last week from The Conference Board of Canada that says "The darkest days are behind us" - as if, somehow in the 21st century, the tens of thousands, millions of jobs lost don't actually count for anything any more.

People are out of work, people are out of homes - not all of them forced out by flames, precious few of them fortunate enough to have the support of a community like this.

Those of us who are not economists do not understand how it is that stock markets can bounce back when people are still bouncing in the opposite direction.

There might be some good talking points to be found here.