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Which Hollywood star is raving about Alberta’s new dinosaur museum?

The brand new Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum gains the attention of Hollywood

Jan 4, 2016

by Mark Kozub

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George Jacob, president and CEO, Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum
Photograph Chris Beauchamp

Dinosaurs are big, and not just size-wise. These prehistoric monsters also pack a major punch in the world of business. In its first few days of release, Jurassic World grossed more than $500 million globally, the highest numbers to date for the opening weekend of any film in history. Meanwhile, 10 kilometres west of Grande Prairie, in the town of Wembley (population just a little over 1,400), the new 40,000-square-foot, $34.6-million Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum has already attracted some Hollywood star power of its own.

When the dinosaur museum celebrated its official opening with an “Amber Ball” fundraiser in September, Dan Aykroyd of Ghostbusters fame was among those in attendance. For several years, Aykroyd has been involved with fundraising efforts for the museum. It all began when his wife, Donna, visited the Pipestone Creek bonebed, located near the museum and considered to be one of the densest dinosaur bonebeds in the world. “We hope that our celebrity awareness factor might have contributed to the cause,” Aykroyd says. “I think it did. It made people around the world aware of it.”

Aykroyd marvels at how people in the Grande Prairie region stepped up to support the museum. “I’m so impressed with everybody here, the natural gas business, construction, forestry… they realize that this is good for Grande Prairie, good for the province, and good for the children,” he says. “It connects to youth. It stimulates their education and most of all, it’s entertaining.”

Ainsley Lamontagne, executive director of the Grande Prairie Regional Tourism Association, says this is not your ordinary museum. “This is a high-tech, world-class, internationally stellar museum,” she says. “This is the museum you go out of your way for.”

If you travel 22 kilometres west on Highway 43 from Grande Prairie, you can’t miss it. With its unique dinosaur-like shape and shale rock tiles on the roof layered to look like the skin of an alligator, the Teeple Architects-designed Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum makes a big impression on architectural appeal alone. (You can see why, in 2013, it was selected by Canadian architectural magazine Azure as one of the “Top 10 Projects to Follow in 2014.”)

Step inside and the museum is every bit as stunning, with more than 100 interactive exhibits and the only designated National Geographic movie theatre in Canada. The latter will allow the museum to screen world-class educational documentaries 600 times a year. In addition, the dinosaur museum offers something different than any other museum in the world: helicopter tours of the bonebeds. “In talking with one of our board members who is also a licensed pilot, I realized the potential of airborne survey of the lands where dinosaurs roamed some 72 million years ago,” says the museum’s president and CEO, George Jacob. “We contacted a local operator, negotiated a flight path and a paleo-tourism experience with visuals on a tablet coupled with crisp audio, and the first experience of its kind was born.”

The museum also displays the link between dinosaurs and Alberta’s most vital resources: oil and gas. One Alberta oil and gas company, Seven Generations Energy, has worked with the museum to create a display that includes core samples from digging.

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The Currie Dinosaur Museum was selected by Canadian architectural magazine Azure as one of the top 10 projects to follow in 2014
Photograph Chris Beauchamp

The Currie Museum is strategically located on Highway 43, which connects the Peace Country to the Edmonton Capital Region. The traffic volumes are impressive: 12,000 vehicles a day on the road to Alaska. “If only 10 per cent of that traffic came to the museum, that’d be considerable,” says Jacob.

According to a 2013 survey done in Alaska, 71 per cent of the tourists coming to Alaska through Alberta (77 per cent of them from the U.S.) also paid a visit to Alberta and its sights (as opposed to a mere 50 per cent in 2012). A good 36 per cent of them visited Grande Prairie along the way. That’s not as high as the 59 per cent that go to Banff, but with the dinosaur museum, those numbers will surely rise.

“The museum is that one big thing that will draw people to the region,” says Lamontagne, “but the reason they’ll stay longer is because they’ll fall in love with all of the cool little quirky things we offer.”

Just some of those “quirky” tourist draws are the Teepee Creek Stampede and the Wanham Plowing Match, Western Canadian heritage events where you’re not just there for the midway but you’re intimately involved in the action.

Shopping is another sizeable draw. Regional tourists come from the north, from neighbouring small towns and hamlets and even from B.C. The Costco in Grande Prairie has one of the highest sales per shopping cart in Canada. (In other words, when people come to shop, they fill up.)

Tourism will impact the town of Wembley as well, notes its Mayor Chris Turnmire. “Our population is just a little over 1,400 and at present we don’t have a lot of services, but Wembley will start to see and enjoy some of the economic spinoff,” he says. “We’ve got the area around the museum zoned for compatible businesses. When you have more commercial and industrial zoning, your tax base increases… and when your tax base increases, you can do more with your infrastructure.”

The County of Grande Prairie in particular has a vested interest in seeing the museum succeed. “The County has invested $19.3 million,” says county Reeve Leanne Beaupre. “We also have a contract to offer financial help with a grant of $400,000 per year until the museum shows us they no longer need that grant.”

Another $10 million has come from the province, $3.5 million from the City of Grande Prairie, $540,000 from the federal government, and other funding has come from other nearby municipalities. Beaupre notes too that members of the community have been equally supportive, ranging from donations of $100,000 from the Rotary Club to bottle drives and, in some cases, even children donating their birthday money. All told, $2.1 million has come from local communities and businesses.

The Side Group of Companies – a Grande Prairie-based business that includes oilfield services, vehicle rental and leasing, residential and commercial development and more – recently made a $500,000 donation to the museum. “The Side family has always been a strong proponent of reading, education and stimulating the minds of children through cognitive learning,” says managing director Linda Side.

One of Side Group’s companies, Northern Metalic, has also supplied the tools needed for bonebed research and its vehicle rental and leasing arm has provided the museum with vehicles for public events.

Another locally based business, Pomeroy Lodging, donated $250,000 to sponsor the museum’s outdoor playground. “As one of our core values is family, it just makes sense,” says Pomeroy’s vice-president of public relations, Jackie Clayton. She was also on the initial ­planning committee that worked to convince provincial and federal government that there was value in having a second dinosaur museum in Alberta. “I’ve heard it said that dinosaurs are the second biggest tourist draw in the world,” Clayton says.

It all goes back to something Dan Aykroyd has been talking about: This museum is important to families, and especially kids. “This is something they can enjoy now and be proud of for years to come,” he says.

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