Revisiting the visitors centre

Past members remember the iconic Yellowknife building

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“The money is gone. The building is gone. The Association is gone.”

That’s how Yvonne Quick, ex-bush pilot and founding member of the now-defunct Northern Frontier Visitors Association, describes the conclusion of the organization and its efforts. What’s left is an empty Northern Frontiers Visitors Centre sinking into the water by Frame Lake.

The Association started in 1983, at first operating out of a “small, dinky office” in the library’s basement, Quick said. “We decided as an Association and group of associations that we could do a better job advertising our own tourism facilities and why you should come to NWT than the government.”

The Northern Frontiers Visitors Centre sits empty, decades after it first opened in 1992.
Nick Pearce / NNSL Photo

In under a decade, it would help build the Visitor’s Centre.

Designed to spur the territory’s tourism industry, the new building sat on piles of heated rock. Inside, an open-concept floor plan greeted visitors to skylight views of the North and surrounding scenery. Construction finished on the Centre in 1992.

Public and member fundraising from its managing organization, the Northern Visitors Centre Association, spent $2.25 million on the building.

“They had a very strong organization at the time,” architect Gino Pin, who designed the new building, told Yellowknifer at the building’s 20 year anniversary in 2012.

However, there was an issue. “They never hit bedrock,” Quick said. “They thought they did.” No one looked after the piles, she added, and over the course of decades, permafrost and deep structural issues emerged in the building. In parallel, the Association was facing its own challenges.

“It’s a pretty extensive undertaking,” Tracy Therrien who served as the Association’s executive director until it dissolved, told Yellowknifer. The organization had to cover operation and maintenance on very minimal funding, she said. “As a result, when the building got in trouble, of course the Association couldn’t handle the amount of repairs.”

When Therrien got involved in 2011, she said the organization was in a deficit and facing departures of senior leadership. She said good management nudged the organization back on course.

Colin Dempsey, who served as president from 2010 to 2015, entered the organization two years prior to Therrien.

“When I ran the organization, the first year was when the writing on the wall became very clear that things were very bad,” he said. Over the previous six years, deficits saddled the organization, he added.

Dempsey said he implemented a plan where non-essential spending, especially around travel, had to be approved. Members “would go on these elaborate, pointless trips that were of no benefit to the Northwest Territories,” and spend thousands of dollars, he said.

“I cut all of that,” said Dempsey, adding the organization was running $50 to $60 thousand year deficits. After reorganizing expenses and management, the association’s finances began to improve.

But it didn’t end there – “then the building started to fall apart,” he said.

After years, permafrost caused structural damage and significant repairs were needed to keep the building up.

“I was working with an engineer, and we were doing some Red Green-style stuff, but we were keeping ‘er safe, and we were keeping ‘er afloat,” said Dempsey.

He said they were bringing the sinking structure back to level, “and that it was working,” which was the “crazy thing.”

He said other members of the organization “had a kamikaze attitude” of letting the building go in hopes of getting a new space.

However, Tracy Therrien said there was no clear path to fixing the building over the long term.

“Every year you could be looking at anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 to level the building,” she said. “There was no clear engineer that came in and said we can guarantee we can bedrock this, and you’ll never have shifting again.”

Yvonne Quick, meanwhile, said that there was enough money to fix the building, but it was instead spent on internal repairs, including glass and heating. She also said the government hadn’t fulfilled its responsibilities to provide visitor services in the city.

The decades-old building also faced interior damage from the shifting foundations as broken windows and cracks sprung up along the walls. On top of hundreds of thousands spent on stabilizing the building – and “there was a question mark if that was even possible,” Therrien said – there was also interior repairs. The quote to repair the windows alone was $500,000, she said.

She said it would be “delusional” for a non-profit to consider fixing it.

“We were forced out of the building for structural reasons. It was unsafe,” she said. The organization had already closed the back half of the building for the last six months, and there was little support to move into a new space. ”We had no choice but close our doors,” she said.

Facing financial issues, the Northern Frontier Visitors Association voted to disband in October 2017 and visitors services were moved to City Hall, where they remain. Meanwhile, the old $2.25 million building slowly sinks into its slough.

– with files from Brett McGarry