It was the mid-1980s and Revelstoke had fallen onto hard economic times.
The Revelstoke Dam was completed in 1983 after six years of construction that brought thousands of well-paid workers to town and lots of contracts to bid on.
But when the mega-project came to an end, most of the workers left and the economic activity slowed dramatically. Unemployment spiked to 24%. Downtown businesses were shuttered. There were almost 400 houses listed for sale. The population dropped from 11,000 to 7,500.
The boom had become a bust and the community entered into a period of economic attrition, leaving local leaders searching for ways to bootstrap the community out of its rut.
A decade earlier in the 1970s, the city had pursued a plan to transform Revelstoke into a Bavarian-themed alpine village, a la Leavenworth, Washington. The concept was to create a European mountain-town themed community that would attract tourists. Many downtown buildings were retrofitted with interpretations of Bavarian mountain building trim. That plan, however, lost steam when the dam construction started.
Simply put, the economy was raging off the economic boom that came with the dam and attracting tourists wasn’t a necessity anymore.
A decade later, after Revelstoke fell off the economic cliff, city leaders once again started beating the bush for ideas to revitalize the community, and once again focused on re-vamping the town’s look.
This time, the new theme focused on heritage, and was accompanied by the creation of a heritage plan for the city.
The centrepiece of the plan was the creation of Grizzly Plaza, a new downtown meeting point that would serve as an anchor for the revitalization plan.
In 1984, former mayor Dr. Geoff Battersby (who was first elected in 1987) travelled to Victoria with several other local leaders to petition the provincial government with their heritage plans, which were inspired by Nelson, B.C.’s recent heritage overhaul. The city hired Robert Inwood, the mastermind of the Nelson heritage overhaul, to guide the heritage revitalization plan.
The city planned to focus on and accentuate its existing mountain-town heritage, hoping to attract tourists. The multi-pronged approach also included expanding education, recreation, tourism and developing a ski resort.
With the help of federal and provincial incentive programs, the city got the community on board with the program, leading to retrofits of existing buildings, and the Grizzly Plaza project.
Although the concepts embodied by the project are commonplace today, they were still newer at the time. The plaza project created a gathering point, a place where the concept of community could be manifested. Sidewalks were widened, heritage light-posts were installed, and traffic flows were re-distributed. The grizzly statues were erected, bringing a new focus on public art.
The process led to the creation of the plaza, and more importantly, a renewed sense of civic pride that comes with a community project with significant public buy-in and participation.
A report from the city’s social development committee highlights this effect:
The impacts from the revitalization project went well beyond what was envisioned by the community leaders. An initial benefit of the project was that it generated short-term economic activity for a community that was in need of jobs.
A real bonus of the project is that it renewed community pride and confidence. The project restored community pride and confidence at a time when they were being seriously eroded by the economic downturn. The substantial investment in the project was not only indicative of community pride but also indicated a commitment from the City to development.
While Revelstoke’s heritage now forms an integral part of what attracts visitors to the area, Revelstoke residents now also value heritage for its own sake. The strong sense of community pride that was generated by this program was focussed to a large extent on significant buildings such as the Court House, the downtown core, and the character of residential areas such as Mackenzie Avenue. Heritage is seen as important to the fabric of the community and to the community’s sense of self.
In 2009, the city extended the heritage planter and pedestrian-oriented brick sidewalk theme up to Third Street, including the sturgeon and kokanee sculptures. (The council of the day got roasted because a batch of bricks was bad and had to be replaced, and because construction ran six weeks late into the busy summer season. Never change, Revelstoke.)
To this day, Grizzly Plaza remains a focal point for downtown, hosting musical performances and events. It’s the default meeting point for community gatherings and celebrations. For example, each year the Revelstoke Secondary School graduating class rallies at the gazebo for photos before walking back to school. When the Revelstoke Grizzlies win a cup, they rally at the plaza to hoist it high for the community. The plaza and the gazebo truly are one of the heart centres of Revelstoke.
Renovation plans kicks up controversy
In April of 2021, the Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) announced it had granted the city $322,050 as part of its Community Outdoor Revitalization Grants program. In its media release, the CBT provided the following description of the project: “Replace the Grizzly Plaza bandstand and update lighting, street furniture, wayfinding signage and landscaping for increased use of public events and programming.” The news was published in local outlets including the Mountaineer, so the plan to re-do the plaza and replace the gazebo has been in the public eye since spring, although the city has not released much in the way of details since.
The funding came via an application by the City of Revelstoke, who had been working with the CBT since at least January, and had submitted an application to the CBT for the renovation project. The work is described in city reports, including this January report to council and this concept design created for the application. From the start, the focus of the plan has been to remove the gazebo, which many residents feel is the jewel in the Grizzly Plaza crown.
In April, revelstokemountaineer.com published a brief noting the successful grant application. Shortly after, the critical commentary began.
“Who applied for these funds? There must be plans already drawn up why don’t we see what exactly is planned for the square so we can evaluate this for ourselves?” one person commented on the story.
“What’s the problem with the bandstand? I hope it will stay,” another asked.
“My dad did all the brickwork in the plaza. I better take some pictures before it’s all gone,” wrote another.
“Waste more money on something not broken,” added another.
Then, in September, we published another brief, noting a proposal to locate a statue of historic Revelstoke ski jumper Isobel Coursier in the plaza.
In the brief, we included images from a concept drawing used to make the application in January, touching off a local firestorm. The story received many hundreds of comments, including on our website, social media feeds and where it was shared to other forums.
“What is wrong with the existing bandshell???? It has lots of character and looks great. The new proposal looks terrible. What is in the water in city hall????,” asked one commentator.
“There goes more of the heart and soul of Revelstoke – replaced by the same ‘stage/structure/area’ you see in every large city (which we are not), impersonal, mechanical and cold. Just to make sure there is absolutely no charm, flowers will also be removed,” wrote another.
“Please don’t do this! It looks so modern and awful..too big for the plaza and the trains going by are part of the charm!!!,” wrote another.
“Leave the band stand alone, we have a major housing shortage for young people and we are unable to fill jobs due to this. I know you will say it is from a different budget but still comes out of the taxpayers pocket,” wrote another.
“Keep Revelstoke’s charm and heritage! It’s what makes it so unique and amazing. Why do we have to look like every other ski town? Why so much rebranding? Are we not popular enough already? Community first!” wrote another, one of hundreds of comments.
Not all comments were opposed to the renovation, but those that did shared common themes: We love Grizzly Plaza as it is, so don’t change it. The city isn’t consulting us, and we’re not confident they’re listening when they do. By the time we’re told, it’s already a done deal. There are more pressing issues the city should focus on.
An underlying theme
There have been a few recent online kerfuffles about changes to downtown in the past months.
Earlier this summer, residents took to social media to object to the new black paint on the mushroom-shaped tourism kiosks in Grizzly Plaza. They had been the city burgundy and long-standing downtown heritage colour. In Facebook groups, many commenters were critical of the change.
Another controversy also flared up this summer when freshly branded Revelstoke banners were placed at the new roundabout and along Victoria Road, displacing art banners created by local community groups.
In Revelstoke, the community banners program allows community organizations and groups paint banners to be displayed on the light poles along Victoria Road. The program is popular and well regarded for its annual unique creations and participation from many community groups, including children and youth.
Residents complained that some of the community banners were missing or taken down early. There were wide-ranging comments, a lot of them critical, including disappointed people who painted a banner that they didn’t get to see displayed. Others said they didn’t like the overly prominent branding. They felt it was cold and corporate.
The city’s parks department responded to the criticism in a social media post, explaining that there had been a technical problem with the banners: the newly installed brackets were not the same size as the banners, so they couldn’t stay. The parks department apologized for the issues and laid out several ways it was going to address them.
At revelstokemountaineer.com, we didn’t write stories about those controversies.
Put together, a theme emerges: Changes designed to make the community more appealing to tourists is altering the character of the community, often without meaningful consultation with residents. It’s eroding our sense of community.
What happens next?
City of Revelstoke development services director Marianne Wade said nothing about the project has been finalized. “There’s no design,” Wade said.
The city plans to open a consultation process on its Talk Revelstoke website, later this week or early next week.
Wade said the project is just getting going. “It’s totally up to the community. There’s nothing set in stone. It is just a pot of money and we’re going to go into engagement to hear what the community has to say,” Wade said.
The project budget isn’t defined yet. The city received $322,050 from the CBT, and is pledging 25% funding, a requirement through the CBT program. The total is $429,400, if the city wants to keep its contribution at 25%. Wade said the original plan had a budget of $750,000, but the city didn’t get its full funding request from the CBT. Wade talked about a project with a budget just over $500,000, but said the final budget is dependent on community feedback.
One of the things to keep an eye on is the budget. The original scoping includes several projects that seem expensive, such as replacing the gazebo, new lighting, or bringing the road level with the plaza. It seems like a challenge to onboard all of them for half a million.
City of Revelstoke economic development director Ingrid Bron said the only “secured funding” for the project came from the CBT grant, and not Resort Municipality Initiative funds. “So other than collaborating on Wayfinding signage and visitor information updated for the space [Community Economic Development] is not involved,” Bron said in an email, adding thee department would support Wade in the consultation process.
If everything is dependent on community input, why was the proposal for a new statue okayed by city council at its Sept. 14 meeting? The resolution, which was supported by council, read: “That the request from M. Manley of Arts Revelstoke to install a permanent work of art, in the form of a full size bronze sculpture of Isabel Coursier be supported. And that consideration be given to incorporate this sculpture in the design work for the Grizzly Plaza renovation subject to community consultation.”
When asked why the decision came before the consultation, Wade said it hadn’t. “The statue wasn’t decided on to go there. It is going to be in the questionnaire and people will be asked what they think of it. It was just a consideration that was asked and council didn’t say yes it must go there, [it was] about it being incorporated into the consultation process.”
Wade said the consultation will involve a survey, and that people will be able to provide written responses. She said the city remains limited in its ability to hold public gatherings but has done things like pop-up events at the market and other outreach.
The ball is in the city’s plaza
In the 1980s, during a rough economic times for the community, a downtown revitalization project designed to improve the city’s tourism potential rallied and united the community, instilling a sense of pride and confidence, setting the stage for a comeback.
In 2021, during rough times for the community created by the pandemic, a downtown revitalization project designed to improve the city’s tourism potential has started out on the back foot, prompting an existential dialogue about where the community is heading. However, city representatives counter and say the project is just about to make its planning debut to the community.
Last week during a committee meeting, council and staff talked about “engagement fatigue” and the challenge to get people involved in some of the Talk Revelstoke processes, many of which are seeing underwhelming responses.
It sure seems like there’s a lot of interest in this issue, so hopefully the city can bottle that lightning and leave those who opt to participate feeling their time and contribution was valued.
A final thought
On a personal note, compared to big problems like the pandemic and its effects, climate change, or the unique challenges all of us can face in our lives, the debate about the plaza renovation is a boutique community issue, albeit one that is close to many peoples’ hearts. It’s more rewarding to approach issues like this with curiosity and contribution than to get too worked up about them.
UPDATE: Sept. 23, 2021
The city has now opened its Talk Revelstoke forum on the Grizzly Plaza project. You can see the page via this link to the Talk Revelstoke page. The deadline to complete the initial questionnaire is Oct. 18.