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Yellowknife's Northern Frontier Visitors Centre to be demolished

The problem-plagued Northern Frontier Visitors Centre in Yellowknife is scheduled to be demolished this fall or winter. Minister Wally Schumann says this is the 'best value option.'

Infrastructure Department says it could save part of building, but it would have 'very little utility'

The visitors centre was built on pilings and partly overhangs a small pond. It’s been sinking and shifting for years. Infrastructure minister Wally Schumann says tearing it down is the 'best value option,' given the 'deteriorating condition' of the building. (Randall Mckenzie/CBC)

The problem-plagued Northern Frontier Visitors Centre in Yellowknife is going to be demolished. 

In a document tabled in the N.W.T. legislature on Monday, Infrastructure Minister Wally Schumann says that tearing down the building is the "best value option" given the "deteriorating condition" of the downtown building.

The document states there is "significant damage" to the structure, including the exterior and interior walls and windows. It concludes only one-third of the building is potentially salvageable. 

The Department of Infrastructure says it could save that one-third of the building at a cost of $2.7 million, but says "this would have very little utility." It says it could build a space the same size for $2.1 million.

The Northern Frontier Visitors Centre has stood abandoned since May of 2017, when it was shuttered over safety concerns arising from structural issues attributed to shifting permafrost.

Since then, the Department of Infrastructure has spent $344,000 on repairs, inspections and redevelopment design, says Schumann in the document.

He says further repairs to the building, monitoring, inspections and other expenses are estimated to cost another $298,000 this fiscal year.

Kyle Thomas, the man behind Yellowknife Online and former president of the Northern Frontier Visitors Association in Yellowknife, says he has 'mixed feelings' about the building coming down. (Randall Mckenzie/CBC)

There is no expectation that pumping more money into the building would stem its continued deterioration, says Schumann.

Greg Hanna, a spokesperson for the territorial Department of Infrastructure, said in an email that the decision to raze the building came after "thorough consideration that included external engineering advice." 

"The GNWT (government of Northwest Territories) recognizes that the building is valued by the community," he said.

Hanna said salvaging the whole building and renovating it would cost about $8.2 million, and there would still be a significant risk of movement at the foundation.  

The Northern Frontier Visitors Association ran the visitors centre until it was condemned. The organization disbanded shortly thereafter.

The City of Yellowknife took over visitor services in the fall of 2017, and has been operating a visitors centre out of the ground floor of city hall ever since.

This arrangement is set to continue for the foreseeable future, said Kerry Penney, the city's director of policy, communications and economic development.

'The role of visitor centres is changing'

Kyle Thomas runs Yellowknife Online, an independent tourism information website, and is a former president of the Northern Frontier Visitors Association. 

Thomas said the increasing ubiquity of online travel information and bookings is lessening the need for bricks-and-mortar tourist information centres.

"From my digital experience, people aren't necessarily coming to Yellowknife anymore without any planned tours or without knowing what there is to do," he said. "So, I think the role of the visitor centres is changing slightly." 

The Northern Frontiers Visitors Centre offered more than rudimentary tourist information, like nearby hikes, hotels and restaurants.

With an exhibit on Yellowknife heritage, a diamond display and a souvenir shop, it was something of a destination unto itself.

"Do we need exactly what the Northern Frontier Visitors Centre once was? I don't know," said Thomas. "But I know that what it was, was bigger than just visitor information services."

Demolition to cost more than half a million dollars

Demolition of the building is planned for this fall or winter, and is expected to cost $597,000.

As a life-long Yellowknifer, Thomas said he has "mixed feelings" about the building. 

"I understand the determination and the hard work that went into developing that building 30 years ago ... and it is a beautiful building, without a doubt," he said.

But, he continued, it's time to "look forward and come up with some new concepts."

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