A new business venture is bringing up some old ghosts in Vancouver’s historic Gastown district.
The history is unfolding in a unique, 104,000-sq.-ft. subterranean development under what was once the Woodward’s parking lot, between Cordova and Water Streets in Gastown.
The latest project for Canadian-owned Historical Xperiences Inc., Storyeum fills an area roughly equivalent to the girth of six full-sized hockey arenas and is being billed as the next generation in historical attractions.
The $22.5-million project, which opened its doors earlier this month in the heritage district, takes visitors on a 70-minute journey through British Columbia’s past – from its fiery volcanic origins through the history of First Nations in the region to the arrival of European explorers and on to the present day.
For the company’s marketing and communications vice-president, Graeme Drew, it’s an idea whose time had come.
“We looked at a number of locations, including Seattle and Calgary, when we were deciding the optimum site for this venture,” Drew says. “Gastown was in need of revitalization and this gave the city a chance to improve the most unproductive parking lot in the city into a
bigger and better producer.”
Danny Guillaume, president and CEO of Historical Xperiences Inc., has flexed his historical muscles before, as HXI’s first heritage attraction was built in his hometown of Moose Jaw, Sask.
Tunnels of Moose Jaw highlights the Al Capone-Chicago connection with the city, as well as the story of the plight of the Chinese workers during the construction of Canada’s railroad. Guillaume was visiting Moose Jaw in the summer of 1999 when he took the small tour that was at that time called The Tunnels of Little Chicago.
|Courtesy of Historical Xperiences, Storyeum|
|Vancouver’s new Storyeum attraction is part of an ongoing revitalization of the Gastown district.|
Guillaume collected a team to create and execute a business plan to inject a capital investment of $1.5 million into the existing project, and upgrade it with the incorporation of live actors, multimedia and special effects.
The Tunnels of Moose Jaw opened with two separate productions in the summer of 2000. Historical Xperiences Inc. effectively increased the size of the original presentation 10-fold, and is currently drawing more than triple the original audience each year.
Drew says that Storyeum has signed a letter of agreement with the City of Vancouver archives to popularize some of the city’s historical images that otherwise get very little attention.
“We are trying to package and present these stories in a way to turn people on to being more interested in history than they were before,” he says. “We have had hundreds of people working on all different aspects of the history for the scripts, including First Nations and historians from the archives. Leonard George has been one of our principal resources for information from the Burrard band, for example.”
“In terms of guest volume, the big three in Vancouver are Grouse Mountain, the Capilano Suspension Bridge and the Aquarium,” says Drew. “And while I shy away from superlatives – biggest, best – we want to make sure we are exceeding our customers’ expectations with this endeavour.”
Dozens of actors are employed to direct patrons through elaborate sets depicting each era. The presentation is multimedia, with everything from film and puppetry to soundstage-style sets. In one scene that takes place on Captain Cook’s ship, an actor portraying a sailor rows across a stretch of ocean through lightning, thunder and sheets of rain to speak with his captain about trading with a local native band.
City of Vancouver archivist Reuben Ware says that Storyeum staff worked extensively with city archivists. “They were a pretty major customer for a while, and we worked with them to ensure they had proper citations on the images they used in case members of the public wanted to find out more.”
Ware adds that the city archives expect to see enhanced usage in the future because of the spotlight Storyeum is shining on B.C.’s past.
“One impact on us will be increased visits to the archives. This is a positive thing because we want people to be more aware of the heritage and history of Vancouver. We want to encourage people to look into their own family background and history.”
Storyeum technical director Nigel Wilcox has been working on the project for two years, and says the attraction, which held its grand opening on Canada Day, has been a huge success so far.
“We run a show every 30 minutes from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., 364 days a year,” he says. Despite the static sets, there is room to keep the stories fresh with space set aside for on-site displays that can change over the years, he adds. Storyeum also boasts a history-themed restaurant and gift shop.
Michael Flanigan, manager of real estate services for the City of Vancouver, says the city has signed a long-term lease with Historical Xperiences Inc. for the property. Flanigan heads the Woodward’s redevelopment project, an ongoing effort to re-energize the site and surrounding community. The city is renovating the upper sections of the parking lot in an effort to recoup some of the $38 million that has gone into upgrades.
“We’ve already seen a huge impact in Gastown,” Flanigan says, citing the volume of traffic through Storyeum. “It is my understanding that they are averaging around 1,600 customers every day.”
Attracting tourist dollars is a major goal of this enterprise, with cruise ship passengers and visitors to Gastown being prime target customers.
Flanigan says that the most significant outcome of the
project so far as been the social benefit for local employment and supply.
“Local residents of the downtown east side have been hired in the capacity of actors, building maintenance and operations, with between 120 and 140 new jobs arising out of this project,” he adds. “We have also asked that Storyeum employ local businesses where they can, so that catering, building supplies and other business needs can bring some critical development to this area.”
(Karen Dyer can be reached at email@example.com)