Yellowknife mayor insists visitor centre in mall is right call
Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty says placing the city’s visitor centre in a downtown mall will combat an example of broken windows theory in action.
Broken windows theory, popularized in the 1990s by New York City’s approach to policing, holds that visible signs of crime and anti-social behaviour will encourage further crime and disorder in the same area.
In Yellowknife, the municipality is preparing to open a visitor centre for tourists in a mall long considered to be one of the city’s most run-down and neglected buildings, with a high vacancy rate and concerns over security.
Some residents have questioned the wisdom of introducing tourists to that environment once pandemic restrictions lift and visitors from outside the territory can access downtown Yellowknife. Past visitor centres, near the territory’s legislature and in the basement of City Hall, have occupied quieter, more scenic locations.
Speaking to Cabin Radio, Alty said turning the visitor centre into an “anchor tenant” of the mall would instead help to lead revitalization of the area, drawing thousands of people and prompting other businesses to invest in the same space.
“We had over 30,000 people come through the visitor centre pre-Covid, in a year. So this is really that opportunity to be the big draw, to get visitors to come downtown to stop by the visitor centre, and then hopefully continue staying downtown, shopping downtown and being that revitalization spark,” the mayor said.
Alty said there were several options to provide parking – another concern voiced by residents – and said the city would lean on the territorial and federal governments to offer social supports for downtown’s vulnerable population at the same time.
“If you build it, they will come,” said Alty, adapting a line from the 1989 Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams, in which a troubled man is told by apparitions to build a baseball diamond in a cornfield.
“During election time, whenever we’re going door to door, everybody always asks, ‘What are you going to do to revitalize the mall?'” Alty continued.
“On one hand, the city can’t force the mall to do X, Y and Z, but we can put our money where our mouth is and be the anchor tenant in the mall to be able to draw 30,000 people to this mall.
“I think other businesses will be interested in being located there because there’ll be so much foot traffic.”
Alty’s described a vision for the visitor centre in which mall doors on 50 Street, which have been blocked off for years in part to improve mall security, are reopened and lead directly to the centre. There will also be a gallery space for northern artists to exhibit (though not sell, Alty specified) their work.
“It can be a little difficult to see the vision but, you know, it’s the whole concept of the broken windows theory – if you just leave something broken, it’s just going to continue to run down,” Alty siad.
“We’re really looking to revitalize the space, be able to bring some life to the mall with visitors, and that will hopefully draw more stores and residents.”
The mayor hopes the work will be complete by the end of the year.
Below, find a transcript of the full interview.
This interview was recorded on May 20, 2021. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: Why the Centre Square Mall for this?
Rebecca Alty: We did a review in the past and it was determined that the best place to have a visitor centre is downtown. And the reason the Centre Square Mall was appealing was that it’s located downtown and it’s an opportunity to be what they say is an anchor tenant – so one of the big draws to the mall, which then encourages more businesses to come to the mall and more people to come to the mall and create that energy.
With the visitor centre being located in the mall… you know, we had over 30,000 people come through the visitor centre pre-Covid, in a year. So this is really that opportunity to be the big draw, to get visitors to come downtown to stop by the visitor centre, and then hopefully continue staying downtown, shopping downtown and being that revitalization spark.
For a lot of people, Centre Square Mall does not scream tourism. Give me an image of what you’re envisaging. What’s it going to look like?
That’s one of the great things, too. People that have been here for a long time will remember there used to be doors to Centre Square Mall on 50 Street. The doors are going to be located on 50 Street, Centre Square Mall is looking to open those back up. You’d come in those doors and boom, take a quick right, and you would be greeted into this new space.
And it’s going to be a visitor centre as well as a non-commercial art space able to showcase Yellowknife and northern artists. It won’t be a place where people buy it but it’ll be an opportunity for people to see the local art. We’ll have some of our northern displays, northern wildlife and all that stuff, which everybody always loves to get their photos taken with, and be greeted to this big welcoming space vibrant with local northern artists.
In isolation, that sounds great. However, it isn’t going to take place in isolation – it’s going to come into the heart of one of the biggest problems the city faces in terms of how it helps its vulnerable population, how it helps businesses in that area of town as well. So what extra supports is this going to come with? What bigger plan is there to help the visitor centre, help the mall, and help the people downtown?
This is the spark, again, to be that anchor tenant. If you have 30,000 people coming into the mall, it’s going to encourage other businesses to want to be located there because you’ll have so much foot traffic coming in. That does help and the GNWT on the social side is looking to develop that long-term permanent wellness centre. With that, as well as hopefully some more federal funding – they did announce the rapid housing – we get those other social supports through the federal and territorial government. And from the business side, being the anchor tenant in the mall is that opportunity to encourage more businesses to be located there.
I think some people would understand the point about needing an anchor tenant, but might question whether the visitor centre is the one you want to lead off with. Some people might say that’s the last thing you put in, once an area has been revitalized, because that’s then going to provide the best service and the best impression to tourists. Why do you see that differently?
I see it differently because it’s just being able to market, for the mall to be able to market to the other businesses. I think it will be a big draw for businesses to come and locate there. If you build it, they will come. During election time, whenever we’re going door to door, everybody always asks, ‘What are you going to do to revitalize the mall?’ On one hand, the city can’t force the mall to do X, Y and Z, but we can put our money where our mouth is and be the anchor tenant in the mall to be able to draw 30,000 people to this mall. I think other businesses will be interested in being located there because there’ll be so much foot traffic.
You talk about putting your money where your mouth is. That money will be going south. The mall is southern-owned. Is that frustrating?
Slate Management is the company. They have partnered with the city on this location. The city’s only covering the operating expenses, so the utilities, and Slate is actually chipping in for the rest of the fees.
Other parts of Canada like Vernon, for example, in British Columbia have moved to spending more money on digital tourism and then closing down their physical visitor centre space. How much consideration did a plan like moving things online instead receive?
Yep, that was included too. And we’re still gonna have the digital presence. With NWT Tourism, they do a lot of the digital presence to get residents or to get visitors to Yellowknife and to the North. And the city’s been working to increase our digital presence on stuff to do in Yellowknife. But there’s still been shown a big draw to actually come to the visitor centre, particularly there’s certificates that people can get, ‘I’ve been north of 60,’ and that’s a big draw for them to come in, get their certificate and be able to see what other products are on offer. So we did see that there is still a demand here in Yellowknife. We’ll continue to monitor that.
The other thing is that it is a multi-use space in that it will be a non-commercial art gallery with the opportunity for people to rent it out after-hours – if it’s the Geoscience Forum and they’re looking for a space to hold a reception, this would be available with some great northern artists around the walls. So it’s providing both the non-commercial art space – we’ve heard a lot from residents that they want a place to be able to show their art – as well as being the visitor centre.
When news of this came out, I know people had queries about parking.
When the visitor centre was at City Hall, it didn’t have the giant parking lot like the Northern Frontiers Visitor Centre but we did block off a few parking metres so then tour buses were able to park there. We’ll be looking at the Centre Square Mall location and finding the right parking solutions. We do own three lots across the street so that’s an opportunity, or whether it’s providing designated space on the street for tour buses, those will be some options that we’ll be looking at.
When are you envisaging opening this up?
We’re hoping for the end of the year. We do think it’s the best time to do it. We were able to get our house in order so when visitors come back it’s like, boom, they’re able to come to this new space and get great information and see the local artists. Pre-Covid we were just so busy trying to keep up with all the tourist demands. This has given us a bit of time to breathe and get set up. It’s trying to make something good of a situation, so we’re really taking the time to develop a great space so we’ll be able to welcome visitors when the borders open.
Anything else you want to add?
It can be a little difficult to see the vision but, you know, it’s the whole concept of the broken windows theory – if you just leave something broken, it’s just going to continue to run down. We’re really looking to revitalize the space, be able to bring some life to the mall with visitors, and that will hopefully draw more stores and residents.