Chris Dray is leaving his position as executive director of the Yukon Arts Centre and ending a decades-long career as a champion of cultural development in Whitehorse.
Fans of the Longest Days Street Fair are already feeling the effects of his impending departure with the loss of an important public event.
“I think there was quite a significant monetary impact of having the street fair,” said Rick Karp, president of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce.
“There’s no question that it just brought life to the downtown. It was wonderful.”
The fair brought a focus to the downtown core, said Dray.
In addition to being a boon to businesses — some who saw their till receipts jump 10 to 30 per cent — the fair provided a much-desired destination for local families.
“I know the town’s going to miss the fair,” said Dray.
“I think this year is a good year for people to say, ‘We really miss it.’”
Dray explained that he and Chris Sorg, on behalf of the Main Street Yukon Society, only committed to running the $250,000 month-long fair for two years. Now they’re done.
Still, the objective was achieved, said Dray.
“We were singing and dancing in the rain for two years to demonstrate that culture can really enhance downtown business in the summer and be good for tourism.”
The goal was to use the street fair as a proof-of-concept for lobbying the government into joining forces to co-develop a cultural district modeled after Vancouver’s Granville Island or Toronto’s Distillery District.
The plan, which the chamber of commerce and the Main Street Yukon Society helped develop, would employ existing space in heritage buildings along the waterfront.
Already, Dray and Artspace North have achieved a measure of success.
With the demands from the business community for an activity to replace the street fair, the government stepped in and agreed to lease the old fire hall to Artspace North.
The fire hall will open on June 1st, three months late but just in time for high summer.
The basic rental rate for the space is $250, but only about half that is charged to non-profit arts groups.
The space will begin taking bookings on Monday through the Yukon Arts Centre.
If the fire hall is a success, and leads to further arts investment in waterfront space, then Dray said he will have one more institution to leave as a legacy to northern arts and business.
It’s important to have an arts district near the city core, said Dray.
“It protects the centre of our city and enlivens the downtown core, which is essentially owned by local people. It’s about local investors.”
The business community recognizes that Dray’s departure will be felt more acutely than the loss of the street fair.
“Chris Dray’s leaving is going to have quite an impact on the whole arts community. He’s a real driving force,” said Karp.
“He knows everybody. He knows the city. He knows how things work. That is so, so valuable.”
Dray’s involvement in the arts community in Whitehorse is legendary.
As a 26 year-old, he purchased Porter Creek’s Guild Hall for $1 and set to work renovating it with his “own two little hands.”
Dray also started the organization that eventually built the Yukon Arts Centre, and led to the creation of Arts Underground in the Hougen Centre.
Now 54, Dray isn’t sure what he’ll do next.
His children have grown up and moved out, and he said he needs a change.
No one should be in charge of cultural assets as influential as the Yukon Arts Centre for more than a decade, he said.
Dray has been the director for nine years.