Watershed year ahead for Fraser River Discovery Centre

Catherine Ouellet-Martin takes in the view from the second floor exhibition area of the Fraser River Discovery Centre, which has been empty since the centre reopened. But she has big plans for the space next year, as she sets out to fufill its potential. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
Catherine Ouellet-Martin takes in the view from the second floor exhibition area of the Fraser River Discovery Centre, which has been empty since the centre reopened. But she has big plans for the space next year, as she sets out to fufill its potential.

Almost 12 years after first opening as a preview centre the Fraser River Discovery Centre is still struggling to find its legs.

The centre’s expansive exhibit space on the second floor is largely empty. The distinctive white sails along its roof are anything but, soiled by pollution, birds and weather. The centre doesn’t even warrant a mention in the announcement for the New Westminster SkyTrain station, like Science World gets at Main Street.

“It’s unrealized potential,” admits the centre’s director for the past three years, Catherine Ouellet-Martin.

But that’s about to change.

By next September, the second floor will be occupied by My River, My Home, an ambitious project spearheaded by the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanic Institute in Massachusetts that will cast the economic, environmental and cultural issues of the Fraser into context of some of the world’s other great rivers like the Amazon, Congo, Ganges and Yangtze. The ground floor will also get a new look, to better direct visitors to the upstairs.

For New Westminster residents anxious for a showpiece facility to dazzle and educate visitors, it may seem like a long time coming. In the world of museum development, it’s not unusual, says Ouellet-Martin. In the long history of the Fraser, it’s but a blip.

The Fraser’s story needs telling, says Fin Donnelly, who became intimately familiar with the river when he swam its 1,375 kilometres twice.

“I drew attention to the river by being in it,” says Donnelly, who now advocates for its health and viability as the Member of Parliament for New Westminster-Coquitlam and Port Moody. “We have to be aware of its problems and how to address them with solutions.”

The discovery centre will be a key component of that conversation says Donnelly.

“It can be a hub of activity, awareness and information for the province and beyond,” says the MLA.

The Fraser River Discovery Centre began as an idea in 1986 but didn’t evolve much beyond a society of dedicated volunteers and a display in the old Westminster Quay public market until the preview centre was built as part of the entry building to the riverboat casino in 2001.

It was borne from a desire to reestablish New Westminster’s connection to the river, but soon evolved to integrate the Fraser’s economic, environmental and cultural importance along its entire length.

“We realized it’s about a river thousands of kilometres long, not three miles of New Westminster’s waterfront.” says Allen Domaas, the former president of the Fraser River Port Authority and a member of the centre’s board of directors. “That made the scope of the project bigger, to educate the whole region about the Fraser. The board had to begin forging relationships with representatives all along the river.”

Considering the hundreds of municipal and First Nations governments, industries, recreational and environmental groups with an interest in the river, that’s a monumental and ongoing task, says Ouellet-Martin. Plus there’s the constant demand for fundraising to keep the process going.

“We do a lot of work fundraising and ‘friend raising,’ “ says Ouellet-Martin. “We have to be able to build relationships and give sponsors something in return.”

The economic downturn in 2009 and the closure of the public market that coincided with the centre’s acquisition of the entire building after the riverboat casino was closed stalled a lot of those discussions.

“This place was an island,” says Ouellet-Martin. “It wasn’t seen as desirable at the time.”

New development in New Westminster’s Downtown, including the reopening of the River Market and the completion of the $25 million Westminster Pier Park, a short walk east of the discovery centre, have given new impetus to take it to the next level.

“New Westminster identifies with the river, and part of the city’s goal is to create family activities on the waterfront,” says Domaas. “The centre will be the magnet that draws people over Front Street and the railway tracks.”

“It’s a huge opportunity to bring visitors from all over,” says Ouellet-Martin. “We want this place to be seen as a way to connect to the river.”

A new partnership with Port Metro Vancouver to put on RiverFest, celebrating the Fraser with arts, music and family activities on BC Rivers Day, is a key component. Opening the second floor with a world class exhibit is next.

My River, My Home is a children’s art project that became the Global Rivers Observatory, an international project to investigate the chemical composition of a dozen of the world’s great rivers. That chemistry is impacted by climate change, deforestation and other economic and cultural activities. The University of the Fraser Valley is a partner in the study of the Fraser.

Building an exhibit worthy of such a project can take a couple of years and tens of thousands of dollars says Ouellet-Martin. It will incorporate giant photographic panels, maps, art, interactive displays and viewing stations out to the river itself.

“It will allow people to reflect on their own connections to the river,” says Ouellet-Martin, who expects everything to be in place for next September’s RiverFest.

Domaas is confident the exhibit will launch the discovery centre into the next era of its evolution.

“It will be eye-opening for people to learn that the river is so closely connected to their lives,” says Domaas. “We can’t stay static or we’ll be dead in the water.”

Donnelly is hopeful.

“We often take the river for granted,” he says. “We have to create that sense of pride that it’s one of the world’s greatest. It needs that wow factor.”



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