Year-old Alberta dinosaur museum faces financial struggle

Although a state-of-the-art dinosaur museum in Wembley, Alta. attracted twice as many visitors as expected during its inaugural year, balancing the books is proving to be a challenge.

‘I don’t think it’s sustainable that we’re going to have 120,000 people show up year after year'

An exhibit at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Wembley, Alta. The museum attracted more visitors than expected during its inaugural year, but doesn't expect to keep that up. (CBC)

A state-of-the-art dinosaur museum in rural northwestern Alberta attracted twice as many visitors as expected during its inaugural year, but balancing the books in the future is expected to be a challenge.

"We're extremely excited about having 120,000 people show up, but I don't think it's sustainable to think we're going to have 120,000 people show up year after year," said Tim Powell, chair of the River of Death and Discovery Dinosaur Museum Society.

Powell said the budget is the biggest challenge facing the society, which runs the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum on the edge of Wembley, Alta., a town of 1,400 people 480 kilometres northwest of Edmonton.

Unlike the provincially funded Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, the $34-million Currie Museum does not receive operating funding from the provincial government.

Construction was made possible with a $10-million contribution from Alberta Culture and Tourism and $20 million from the County of Grande Prairie. The rest of the money came from fundraising.

In the early days, there was widespread financial support for the museum — including from Hollywood star Dan Aykroyd, for whom the theatre in the building was named.

But financial support has dropped off.

"That affects your financials a little bit as well, when you're hoping to bring in more money and they're not quite as large," Powell said of the fundraising events the museum has held in recent months.

Additional funding needed

Financial statements show that for the first six months of 2016, the museum's net income was $308,000.

Leanne Beaupre is reeve of the County of Grande Prairie, which has committed to providing $400,000 of the museum's operating budget.

"We knew the first year would probably be a challenge for them to try to get funding from other sources for day-to-day operations," she said. "The county actually had given them some additional funding to help get through the first year." 
The outdoor patio at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur museum sits empty on a sunny summer day. (CBC)

According to notes from an Aug. 8 presentation to the County of Grande Prairie council, spending on travel and training and conferences went over budget.

Between January and June, $30,422 was spent on travel and $26,112 was spent on training and conferences. 

Powell said spending thousands of dollars to travel to cities around the world to promote the museum only to have a handful of people show up takes a toll on the budget.

Staffing shakeup

In October, the society let museum CEO George Jacob go with nine months left in his contract.

While Powell expressed gratitude for the international and national notoriety Jacob helped the museum achieve,"the board just decided we're going to take it a little bit different focus," he said,

And the new focus is closer to home.

"I've talked to a lot of people in town and they haven't been yet," Powell said.

I've talked to a lot of people in town and they haven't been yet...We'd like to make them more aware.- Tim Powell, chair of the River of Death and Discovery Dinosaur Museum Society

"We'd like to make them more aware."

The society is not looking to replace Jacob until the spring.

"Our winters are slow up here. There's not much sense adding to the financial burden," Powell said. "It gives us time to find the correct person."

The museum does not have marketing or fundraising coordinators, but plans to hire for those positions as well.

Other staff members who have recently vacated their posts will not be replaced. For example, instead of replacing the gift shop manager, the society will rely on hourly employees.

A more local focus 

In the new year, the society hopes to display a collection of 7,000 fossils that belonged to an area man who recently died. He found them around Pipestone Creek, one of the most dense bone beds discovered to date. It's about 15 km from the museum.
A close-up of an exhibit of a fossilized dinosaur at the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. (CBC)

Next summer, there will be a large dig at the riverbed site, which Powell expects to include paleontologists and archaeologists from around the world.

"There's not too many bone beds where the public has access like they do at this one," he said.

"They'll be able to go in and talk to them and watch them dig. They might even put them to work."

Museum has put area 'on the map' 

The society still has big long-term plans for the museum, and has outlined them out in a 10-year wish list.

Powell said the society is eyeing the addition of an IMAX theatre and a residence for paleontologists interested in pursuing their work at Pipestone Creek.

Beaupre said despite the museum's financial struggles, it has been a boon to regional tourism.

"I think the museum has really put the northwest part of the province on the map," she said.

"We've seen international travellers, travellers from our own country, and the U.S.

"Just the amount of people who have come through the doors, and the awards, and the publications that have written and taken note of what's happening here. We now have a strong connection to tourism in our area."