'River of Death' to showcase dinosaur finds

Monday, August 9, 2010

Communities in northwestern Alberta have a multimillion-dollar plan to become the province's next Drumheller.

But first, organizers say, they need a hefty show of support from the provincial government.

While Drumheller, home to the Badlands and the Royal Tyrrell Museum, is seen as a hub for dinosaur study and tourism in Alberta, community leaders in the Grande Prairie area are teaming up now to build a new museum and interpretive centre to capitalize on their own dinosaur history.

"From a tourism perspective, you could create an absolute awesome dinosaur trail that could not be duplicated in any other part of this country," said Brian Brake, executive director of the proposed $27-million River of Death Discovery Dinosaur Museum.

The museum would be in the town of Wembley, on Highway 43 just outside Grande Prairie.

Grande Prairie is about 550 kilometres northwest of Drumheller.

"We're not looking to duplicate the Royal Tyrrell Museum, " Brake said. "If anything, what we're doing here right now is going to make paleontology more well-known throughout the province."

In recent years, paleontologists have described the dinosaur fossils found in northwestern Alberta as something of an ecosystem missing link. Grande Prairie's bone finds appear to bridge the evolutionary gap between dinosaurs found in southern Alberta and those found in Alaska.

Although the province has contributed $3.3-million for the enterprise, Grande Prairie is looking for the provincial government to provide a full third of the project's total cost.

Last week, Premier Ed Stelmach was invited to tour the 6.4-hectare museum site, and he indicated the departments of culture or tourism may find some cash for the project.

"I encourage you, don't lose any momentum. It is a good idea," Stelmach told people in Wembley.

Brake described the province as a key funder: if the Stelmach government chips in a third, Brake believes the federal government and local companies, governments and community members will follow.

So far, Ottawa has promised $540,000, while the city and county of Grande Prairie have each invested $1.5 million.

A spokesman from Alberta Culture and Community Spirit said Monday the province has yet to see an actual application for funding. When the department receives the River of Death pitch, it will be evaluated against other government priorities, Parker Hogan said.

"That bone bed does have some scientific significance," Hogan said, adding an interpretive centre could potentially draw more scientists and students north.

But, he added, "right now it's still very much in the design stage."

Brake said he received 16 proposals this spring from architectural companies interested in designing the museum. He expects to announce the successful applicant next month.

If the money is in place, he wants sod turned by next spring to have the museum open in 2013.

Brake said the museum will not be a "shrine" to the local bone bed, however. Instead, he envisions four key storylines.

Visitors would learn more about the Pachyrhinosaur lakustai, the horned dinosaur discovered only in the Pipestone Creek bone bed and named for the Grande Prairie science teacher who unearthed it in the 1970s. Other northwestern Alberta dinosaur species would be highlighted, as well as Alberta's sea fossil history and oil history.

For four months each year, visitors could take bus trips out to Pipestone Creek site where the bone beds are being worked on.

Brake estimated the museum will draw as many as 9,000 children a year through school programs, and 250 people a day from Highway 43 that acts as a main route to Alaska.

Don Boynton, executive director of Travel Alberta, described the dinosaur museum as a reason for people to visit -- and stay -- in northern Alberta.


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