The City of Yellowknife officially unveiled the new visitor centre on Monday.
Located in Centre Square Mall on 49 Street, the facility provides information for tourists about activities, events, services and more. It is also a part of the City of Yellowknife’s downtown revitalization project.
“It’s awesome to be able to open it today,” said Yellowknife Mayor Rebecca Alty, “I love the art gallery, and to be able to have tourists and residents alike come downtown and check it out.”
As opposed to the last visitor centre, which was located in the boardroom at city hall for the interim, Alty foresees the new centre’s location as being better suited for travellers and local merchants.
“One thing we saw with the last visitor centre when it was in the basement of city hall was that tourists came and then they went back to their hotel. So we really wanted to find the next location for the visitor centre in the downtown area so people will come, check it out, and then hopefully check out the shops around them and support the local businesses a bit.
“The other thing that’s helped is that we were able to get the mall to open the 50 Street entrance so we really feel like foot traffic and parking will even come return to this street.”
The visitor centre replaced the Northern Frontiers Visitors Centre, which closed in 2017 after encountering financial issues. That venue, located across from the Explorer Hotel, faced major structural issues and repair costs.
Tracy Therrien, who served as the Northern Frontier Visitors Association’s executive director until the organization dissolved, said, “The quote to repair the windows alone was $500,000.” The building was ultimately demolished in 2020.
“This really ticks a lot of the boxes,” add Kerry Thistle, the city’s director of economic development and strategy. “The non-commercial gallery art space just adds to that, so we’re anticipating we’ll see visitors and residents alike.”
There will also be an accessible ramp, expected to be ready for use in the near future.
“It’s kind of like, hopefully a sign that the times are changing, instead of shutting doors, we’re opening them up again,” Thistle said.
Close to $125,000 for the project came out of the city’s downtown reserve. The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) typically provided $161,000 a year for visitor services, but that figure was increased to around $347,000 for the relocation year.
The Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency also provided funding $400,000 toward the initiative.
The location was expected to open in time for this year’s summer tourist season, but was delayed by supply chain issues and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Kristen Au Johnston, a director for the Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce, attended the visitor centre on opening day.
“I first came to Yellowknife back in October 2017 when they just closed the previous visitor centre that was sinking, across from the Explorer Hotel. I just missed that,” she said. “The city did have a temporary visitor centre at the city hall, which I was actually a tour guide for when I first moved here. That was my first job.
“It’s better to have a space than not having one,” said Au Johnston. “The space (at city hall) was also very small. One tour bus that fits 24 passengers would pack up the place and if there were multiple tour buses visiting at a time, they would have to wait outside. So that was not the most ideal place but I appreciate that we had a temporary solution. This space, it’s so great. It’s right downtown, also close by some of the hotels like Quality Inn and it’s a great space for people to come in. People can see local arts and sit down to read the brochures. It’s really great.”
Cathie Harper, who was also stopped by the visitor centre, remarked that “it’s very fascinating.”
“I mean, it’s a good use of this space. A lot of us have thought for years that this was a great space to be used for something better than it was, but with no easy access it was kind of useless. There were also a lot of repairs that were needed to make it totally functional. It’s really great being used this way. There definitely has been a need for a new visitor centre. Parking, I think, is going to be an issue for guests, unfortunately — especially those who have large campers. But the actual facility is gorgeous looking.”
The first artist in the gallery
Another facet of the grand opening was the highlighted work of Indigenous artist and educator Melaw Nakehk’o.
“It feels really amazing,” said Nakehk’o, who is also co-founder of Dene Nahjo, an organization that promotes Indigenous language, culture, art and leadership.
“It’s quite an honour to be the first artist to show in this gallery space,” she said. “I’m not a full time painter. I’m a filmmaker and a land-based Indigenous educator. I do a lot of hide camps. I teach hide-tanning,” she continued. “So painting is something that I do in between a lot of my projects and I do wish one day that I’ll be able to paint more, but it’s really a practice that I have that helps ground me in between my bigger projects.
“I like to challenge myself and I only recently started painting figurative pieces, so I’m really grateful for all of the subjects in this show that have allowed me to work with their image and try to represent them as best as I can.
“I’m working on a feature documentary right now,” said Nakehk’o. “I also have an experimental, three-dimensional instillation piece that will be at Nuit Blanche in Toronto at the beginning of October.”