Storyeum show has Gastown drooling

Saturday, May 29th, 2004

Creator Danny Guillaume was a Saskatchewan farmer

Gerry Bellett

Clifton Johnson works on ship rigging at the site of the Storyeum project next to Water Street. Johnson, a 20-year-old painter, was sent there by BladeRunners. CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

David Wong of e.Atelier Architecture Inc. says Storyeum is the best thing that’s happened in Gastown in a long time. The area, he adds, is preparing for a ‘gold rush.’ CREDIT: Bill Keay, Vancouver Sun

Storyeum creator Danny Guillaume expects 800,000 people will visit his B.C. history show in the first year. CREDIT: Ward Perrin, Vancouver Sun

When asked about his background, Storyeum’s creator Danny Guillaume describes himself as the proverbial farmer from Saskatchewan.

It’s a classic piece of self-depreciation from the former Moose Jaw grain grower who came west in 1987 — made two fortunes — and is about to turn Gastown on its ear with his $22.5-million, all-action, pop history show.

“I tried farming for five years and I knew I couldn’t make it. So I came here and became an entrepreneur,” says Guillaume, 42.

Swapping the tractor for a calculator didn’t do him any harm.

He opened a video rental business, developed it into a small chain and sold it. Next he turned his attention to the pet industry and founded Petcetera — a runaway success — which he sold when he realized he didn’t want to be a retailer.

His latest business venture, to be unveiled Tuesday, is his most ambitious yet and has had Gastown in a dither since he first proposed the idea two years ago.

In essence he’s aiming at attracting a million customers a year to a unique sound and light show about the history of B.C. which would put it among the top tourist attractions in the province.

It’s the biggest boost to Gastown in years and merchants there are drooling at the prospect of the numbers of visitors it will bring to the historic district’s few streets.

It has already brought 150 permanent new jobs to the area and its economic jolt is being felt in the neighbouring Downtown Eastside.

“I don’t know anyone who’s against it,” says Jon Stovell, president of the Gastown Business Improvement Society.

“We think it’s the most exciting thing happening in Gastown although there are other less splashy things happening as well. There’s an incredible amount of development taking place here.”

He estimates that new and planned development including Storyeum will add up to $100 million in retail and residential projects.

David Wong, principal of the architectural firm e-Atelier, whose office is directly opposite Storyeum, said some of that development is the result of Guillaume’s decision to spend such a large sum in the area.

“Canadians are conservative and tend to wait until someone else makes the first move. But since he came in we’ve seen lots of activity,” said Wong.

“Our company is being asked to do three major renovations of historic buildings, two in Chinatown and one on Main which I’m sure were influenced by having Storyeum arrive,” says Wong.

“It’s the best thing that’s happened down here for a long time. All the businesses are gearing up for a gold rush.”

Storyeum is contained in a 104,000-square-foot development located on Water Street on the site of the old Woodward’s parking lot that has been demolished and rebuilt by the city, which owns the property.

Guillaume’s company, Historical Xperiences Inc., has a 40-year lease on its portion of the site.

Described as an experience in “magical history” the development takes up the street front where a large public concourse and ticket sales area are located.

But most of it is underground, beneath the parking lot in cavernous theatres reached by descending floors where the history of B.C. will be re-enacted using actors, props, special effects, song and dance and the latest in multimedia wizardry.

While elements of what visitors will find in Storyeum can be seen in other attractions around the world — the use of costumed actors to create atmosphere can be found from Disneyland to the Wigan Pier exhibition in northern England — but as a complete package there’s nothing remotely like Storyeum anywhere, except perhaps in Moose Jaw.

For anyone doubting the concept, Guillaume recommends a visit to his home town and a head count of customers entering the Tunnels of Moose Jaw — an experiment he undertook four years ago to see if his vision of a multimedia history exhibition would work.

“I put in $2 million to build it up and now we have 135,000 visitors a year and it’s the biggest tourist attraction in Saskatchewan,” Guillaume says.

He is expecting to have about 800,000 customers in his first year.

© The Vancouver Sun 2004

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