Geoff Morrison, owner of Aurora Emporium Art Gallery, is one of seven local business owners who penned a June 29 letter to the premier with concerns about the visitors centre’s retail space at the Yellowknife airport. Morrison said he feels the Northern Frontier Visitors Association competes unfairly with other businesses, including its own members. Kirsten Fenn/NNSL photo

A group of gallery owners who say the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre undercut their business by selling merchandise now want the association behind the centre to stop selling goods at the Yellowknife Airport.

“We don’t want to see the airport location close down, we want to see the airport location go to legitimate business,” said Lisa Seagrave, Gallery of the Midnight Sun owner.

In a June 29 letter to the premier, the group says retailers have tried to secure space at the airport but “preferential treatment” has been given to the Northern Frontier Visitors Association.

On May 23, the same businesses wrote to association president Kyle Thomas, arguing the visitors centre causes market disruption and hurts other businesses by offering retail services while being supported by government funds.

“We would like to discuss how and when the (visitor’s centre) lease will be terminated at the Yellowknife airport and/or what equivalent opportunities will be granted to other local retailers,” states the most recent letter.

Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister Wally Schumann is copied on the letter, as well as Thomas and a number of politicians.

Geoff Morrison, owner of Aurora Emporium Art Gallery, expressed interest in acquiring retail space at the Yellowknife Airport in 2015.

He was told at the time there was no room available and that the visitor’s association was doing a good job marketing products, according to an e-mail he provided to Yellowknifer.

Lee Stroman, regional airport manager with the Department of Infrastructure, was in touch with Morrison at the time of his request and told Yellowknifer the airport was searching for a food services vendor.

A tender had gone out and was ultimately awarded to Javaroma, he said.

“It wasn’t that we didn’t want him here,” said Stroman. “It’s just that we didn’t then and, in truth, don’t have anything very good right now to accommodate the kind of art that he’s doing.”

He added the airport has since moved to a more “business-centric focus” and is open to hearing from entrepreneurs who might like to move in.

The recent letter also calls for a meeting between all levels of government that support the visitor’s association so they can discuss how the association operates.

“What they’re doing is killing retail services in Yellowknife,” said Seagrave, who takes issue with the fact the centre has grown its retail services over the years while receiving government funding.

According to the visitor’s association’s 2016 financial statements, its centre received $86,723 in funding from the city and $161,000 from the GNWT.

Most of its revenue comes from the $1.03 million the centre earned from merchandise sales.

It also received funding from other areas such as membership fees and renting the visitors centre building, to cover approximately $1.5 million in expenses.

“If it continues, there will be galleries closing their doors,” Seagrave said. “We can’t compete on an unlevel playing field and that’s what they’re presenting.”

Morrison agreed the visitor’s association has presented unfair competition to other businesses, including its members.

“We developed the artists and then they would migrate over there because they can make a little more money,” he said. “It really victimized a lot of businesses.”

Seagrave said she met in early June with a representative from the city and the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment but wants another meeting with the deputy minister and the city’s administrator.

The president of the visitors association was invited to the June meeting, but did not attend, Seagrave said.

In an unsigned statement to Seagrave from June 26, the department stated: “We appreciate you bringing forward your concerns regarding market disruption within the retail sector and will take this into account as a new model is considered.”

Kris Johnson, North Slave regional superintendent, said the department is willing to meet again with local business owners.

A long-term plan for visitor services is being developed with the city in the coming months, Johnson said, adding local businesses would be kept informed.

Yellowknifer did not receive a response from the president of the visitor’s association to requests for an interview.