On the Riverbank Heritage buildings as office space … what a waste!

It is common practice for communities to use heritage buildings to support tourism and business growth.

It is common practice for communities to use heritage buildings to support tourism and business growth.

In India, former palaces are now tourist hotels. Military structures and wharves, warehouses and rail yards around the world now serve as museums, conference centres, public markets and shopping malls.

Heritage buildings are viewed by most communities as cultural treasures and business assets.

In Whitehorse we have a different perspective: Heritage buildings are bulldozed in the night before people can protest, or their heritage value is destroyed by being relocated to parks inaccurately themed as historical representations of the town.

Then we use the buildings as office space for non-profit groups, thus denying public access and turning our backs on the economic contribution these structures make to tourism.

What strange system of beliefs would drive us to such indifference to our history and the economic potential of our heritage assets?

The answer is government’s fear of being seen to compete with property development investors.

Most of the heritage buildings, like the White Pass and Yukon Route station, the fire hall, Taylor House and others, are owned by Yukon government, which has a policy that buildings in public ownership may not be leased for commercial use because it would compete with private developers with lease space available in the community.

There is a simple and elegant solution. 

Maintain the non-competition policy, but exclude the heritage buildings with the blessing of the Main Street business community and the Chamber of Commerce.

Develop those structures as cultural spaces with public access and programming, such as performances or exhibitions, or lease the space at commercial market rates through an open bidding process to be used as a food service or retail store that will draw visitors and local residents into the area.

But what about all the non-profit groups that have cheap office space in the heritage buildings?

Most occupants surveyed by government this year agreed to move to another, equally subsidized, location so that heritage buildings can used for greater community benefit.

This may work for Whitehorse, but what about all the heritage buildings in the other communities?

The policy precedent set in Whitehorse will affect buildings throughout the Yukon. 

Artspace North would encourage any community to see this as an opportunity rather than a problem.

Inevitably, decisions have to be made on a local level by the owners/stewards of the heritage resource and the people of each community.

Whitehorse residents cannot say what is best for Watson Lake, but we can say that the few heritage buildings left on the waterfront are precious cultural assets that are worthy of investment, preservation and increased use by the community.

To continue to use them as office space is a wasted opportunity.

This is the eighth in a series of columns about the Arts and Heritage Village proposed for the Whitehorse Waterfront.

This column provided courtesy of Artspace North.

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