Fixing Whitehorse’s weird deficit: Arts, culture and economic development

Now that natural gas is in the "longshot" category and we're down to our last operating mine, what is Whitehorse's economic future? 

Now that natural gas is in the “longshot” category and we’re down to our last operating mine, what is Whitehorse’s economic future?

Should our slogan be “Government Town” or, slightly more poetically, “Home of the Transfer Payment?”

The slogan on the side of the city’s trucks is “The Wilderness City.” It’s nice positioning, but hardly unique. If you look at advertising from lots of other cities in the northwest, they also highlight natural beauty. Think about Whistler, Banff, Juneau, Port Angeles, Lake Louise or a dozen other cities in B.C., Alberta, Alaska, or Washington.

A few cities strive to separate themselves from the pack with more distinctive strategies. Fort St. John is the “Energetic City,” with Mayor Lori Ackerman pushing to attract high-paying oil and gas jobs. Kamloops bills itself as the “Tournament Capital of Canada,” and attracts thousands and thousands of visitors in sports from curling to synchronized swimming.

Another interesting idea comes from Washington’s Port Townsend: culture and heritage. I recently visited the city, which is just across the water from both Victoria and Bellingham.

Port Townsend was incorporated in 1851. Its vast forest resources, excellent port and strategic position near the mouth of Puget Sound soon had everyone there convinced Port Townsend would be the San Francisco of the Pacific Northwest. Boosters built rows of elegant brick buildings as well as a Carnegie library, a big theatre and some impressive public buildings.

The financial crisis of the 1890s forced the railways to stop building when they got to Seattle, and that was the end of that. When Seattle boomed during the Klondike Gold Rush, Port Townsend had to watch the ships go by.

More than a century later not much has happened economically, at least in terms of conventional economic development in areas like fishing, forestry, energy, mining or manufacturing.

Instead, the city now calls itself a “Victorian seaport and arts community” and recently came in No. 6 in the Smithsonian Magazine’s Top 20 Small Towns to Visit. According to the Smithsonian, “this Victorian seaport town is one of the jewels of the damp-but-gorgeous Pacific Northwest, with a heavy emphasis on the locally grown, the handcrafted and the quirky.”

Port Townsend’s main street is full of art galleries, recycled clothing shops and restaurants serving locally grown meals to foodies. It hosts an annual wooden boat festival, a blues and jazz festival plus a film festival as well as a series of arts and culture events, many of them spearheaded by the local arts association. They’ve also built a marine science centre on the waterfront, with a complete orca skeleton as its centrepiece.

To keep pace with Portland, with its famous “Keep Portland Weird” sign, Port Townsend also hosts an annual kinetic sculpture race where “a human powered, artistically enhanced vehicle … must go through sand (Kwick Sand), mud (The Dismal Bog), float on water (The Great Bay), and traverse hilly, silly neighborhoods.” Apparently the most sought-after award is the Mediocrity Award, given to the sculpture that finishes exactly in the middle of the pack.

This kind of thing makes me worried that Whitehorse has developed a weird deficit, despite the best efforts of the folks who run the hairy-leg contest and chainsaw toss.

Of course, it is easy to be a quirky Victorian seaport if large numbers of locavore Seattle Internet millionaires and wooden-boat enthusiasts are just a two-hour Tesla ride away.

There’s also a historic fort built to protect Puget Sound from incursions by the British or Japanese navies, of interest to both coastal artillery experts and fans of An Officer and a Gentleman, which was filmed there. But this is not really part of the economic development story. Judging by the guest book and my children’s post-visit feedback, the coastal artillery museum is not an idea we should put a lot of effort into stealing.

Nonetheless, Port Townsend’s economic success on the arts and culture front raises interesting questions for Whitehorse. Our city has a surprisingly large number of artists and musicians, and is full of museums and cultural centres. According to government figures reported by Inga Petri, an Outside consultant, at a recent tourism convention, the Yukon has a higher proportion of cultural workers in its workforce than anywhere else in Canada.

Tourists interested in arts and culture can be big spenders. Petri also reported some Yukon government studies indicating that tourists in the SDLqcultural explorer” segment represent 19 per cent of Yukon visitors but spend an impressive 28 per cent of tourist cash.

Port Townsend gives us a few ideas about what we could do to push arts and culture in a way that boosts local economic activity.

First, we could have some bigger festivals designed to not just entertain us but also attract large numbers of Outside visitors. We have some great festivals already, but what could we do so they attract a couple thousand Outside visitors each?

There may be space for new ideas too. My interest in economics and coastal artillery probably disqualifies me from suggesting what these festivals could be about, but I am sure there are enough weird people left in Whitehorse to come up with some good ideas to build on the great festivals we already host.

Second, we could do more to develop a bigger cluster of art and heritage operations close to Main Street. This would involve more creative use of some of the fine, old buildings (mostly controlled by government) located near Front and Main. When I went to my friend’s art show in a building in Marwell near the mining explosives store, I wondered how much more art they could sell if they were in, for example, the old railway station.

Third, we could probably do a better job supporting and promoting local arts and culture. I would be very interested in seeing what percentage of the City of Whitehorse’s and Yukon government’s advertising budgets go to support festivals and cultural tourism.

The government has the money to do all this. It just needs some weird ideas from you.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show or Twitter @hallidaykeith

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