by Kirsten Fenn
Northern News Services
Ulukhaktok artist Maggie Alanak was in good spirits when she came knocking on the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre door Wednesday morning.
She planned to sell her handcrafted ookpiks, mittens and slippers to the centre like she’s done every month for the last two years since moving to Yellowknife.
But when staff told her they’ll no longer be able to sell her goods at the centre because it shuttered earlier this month, Alanak began packing up her things, wiping away tears as she contemplated what to do next.
“It’s so heartbreaking,” she said, adding she sells many of her crafts at the centre and relies on the money she makes there to put food on her table and pay her bills.
“Us Inuit people sew a lot and if more places like this shut down, where are we going to sell our crafts?” she said. “This is where the tourists go, number one, to ask for directions and stuff. I think this is really important that they keep this building going.”
Alanak is not the only local artist taking a financial hit with the centre’s closure May 15 due to structural issues.
More than 60 artists, 20 retailers and several musicians, authors and photographers sell their work at the visitors centre in Yellowknife, according to executive director Tracy Therrien.
In 2016, the not-for-profit that owns and operates the centre purchased $537,000 worth of local products ranging from small $20 items to $200 sculptures, she said.
With the centre moving to a temporary location in the foyer of the Prince of Whales Northern Heritage Centre, the Northern Frontier Visitors Association will no longer have room to sell merchandise.
Craig Scott is also affected by the change.
For six years he’s been selling his Arctic Harvest birch syrup at the visitors centre, where he said he makes 50 per cent of his revenue.
“This is our big market,” he said, adding it’s the go-to place for many Northerners selling niche products.
He doesn’t know what he’s going to do next but said the government needs to find a proper space for the visitors centre.
“Tourism is a very important part of our economy,” said Scott, adding he doesn’t think a “skeleton staff” at the museum “is going to cut it.”
Another man who stopped by the centre Wednesday morning to talk with staff worries the centre’s closure will have a trickle-down effect on businesses in the city.
Henry Zhang, manager at the NWT Diamond Centre, said the visitors centre directs many tourists to his business.
“It’s not good news to us,” he said, adding he believes the visitors centre needs its own building downtown as tourism is on the rise in Yellowknife.
According to data provided by Therrien, the number of visitors passing through the centre’s doors doubled between 2014 and 2016, from about 25,000 to 50,000 people.
Although the current building is closing due to structural issues, the decision to shrink the visitors centre has a lot of people confused.
“Places close down when business is down. Places do not close down when things are the best they’ve ever been,” said Tyler Dempsey, assistant manager at the centre. “This thing has reached a level that it’s never reached before … yet now is the time to abruptly shut it down?”
Northern Frontier Visitors Centre Association board members have said they’ve been seeking increased government support for years.
According to the association’s 2016 financial statement, merchandise sales accounted for nearly 66 per cent of the centre’s revenue.
The GNWT contributed about 10 per cent of the centre’s operations revenue while the city contributed 5.5 per cent.
In a news release issued Wednesday, Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister Wally Schumann announced visitor information services will continue at the museum in the short term while a longer-term solution is sought.
His department has agreed to cover the costs of the association’s move to the museum and “the interim storage of its assets.”
“Our immediate focus has been on finding a place and way for the (association) to deliver the visitor information services on which their association and funding is founded,” Schumann stated in an e-mail to Yellowknifer when asked whether he is concerned about the impact on local artists and retailers.
“In the interim, there are a number of outstanding stores and outlets in Yellowknife that buy and sell local arts and crafts,” he said.
The city has also pitched in an extra $17,000 to help the visitors centre this year.
But Therrien said there were “numerous” spaces downtown the visitors centre could have relocated to with most of its exhibits, retail items and staff. She said the GNWT and city told the centre there was no funding.
Therrien said the centre has liquidated $50,000 in inventory and will be selling off the rest of its assets.
Its retail space at the Yellowknife airport will remain open, said Therrien. She explained it carries a smaller selection of items than the visitors centre.
Cleaning out the now-desolate visitors centre, where only empty shelves and stray items awaiting packing remain, has been “hell” for Therrien.
“It has destroyed us emotionally, mentally,” she said. “The impression we’re getting is we hand out maps and guides. We offer a tremendous amount of services.”