After five years, it's clear that the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre (SLCC) in Whistler's upper village has grown into a place that redefines many things.
Architecturally unique, its building envelope — based on the Squamish Nation longhouse and the Lil'wat Nation pit house — is home to a growing collection of art and artifacts.
With its youth ambassador program, using young guides from both First Nations to show guests around and describe their cultures, it has redefined how museums and cultural entities can present themselves through the very people whose lives they display, to the point that inquiries come from around the world about the program.
And as a business model, executive director Casey Vanden Heuvel said they have developed the centre to appeal to corporate events, weddings, and other money-making opportunities to the point where $1 million has been cut in total from accumulated annual deficits since 2009.
"We're still not breaking even and cultural centres and facilities rarely do, but we've improved our bottom line and we're really proud of the fact that we are able to maintain our focus on cultural delivery and awareness," he added. "Any net shortfalls we experience are paid for by the (Squamish and Lil'wat) Nations. That's another misconception that we're working on."
The fifth anniversary passed on July 10, with the SLCC marking it with a cake and modest celebration, preferring to wait for the fall, where they will focus on the anniversary during September's Spirit Within Festival.
Now in its second year, it will take place over a full weekend from Friday, Sept. 27 to Sunday, Sept. 29. Vanden Heuvel said they may add events on Thursday, Sept. 26, as well. The first festival, in 2012, packed in 14 hours of programming in one day and this can be refined and shared out over several days, not least because of renewed support.
"Presales have gone well, in terms of support and partners. We're very encouraged by it and the fact that we're going to grow it from last year bodes well for giving the festival some momentum and speaks well to the value to the support we've been getting from the Test and Development FE&A funding (from the Resort Municipality of Whistler)," Vanden Heuvel said.
The SLCC received $35,000 from the fund for the 2013 event.
Vanden Heuvel said such generous support will lead to its ongoing growth.
"The cultural centre has benefitted from having testing to see if support for the festival would get off the ground... The Test and Development fund helped us this way," he said. "We had a very successful day. We learned very clearly that we needed to make it multiple days."
In terms of the future, Vanden Heuvel has been advocating the creation of a cultural corridor in Whistler, with the building of a new pedestrian bridge over Fitzsimmons Creek to connect the upper village and the SLCC with the proposed Audain Art Museum and easing access further into the village and other cultural amenities.
"That's where that tipping point happens, I believe. Whistler now becomes a compelling and legitimate cultural destination... that opportunity to create that because of the new facility coming on board," Vanden Heuvel said.
"I did a little math and there's $96 million in capital investment in 13 years into cultural facilities... the SLCC, the Audain Museum, Millennium Place, the Whistler Library and Museum, and the Olympic plaza. They all work really well together because they line up geographically together and intersect the single most popular non-mountain activity, which is the Village Stroll.
Vanden Heuvel said they are being evaluated for "multiple applications for funding" for $3 million, part of the estimated $4 million to $6 million cost of the bridge.
"A very important component of this for me to acknowledge is the necessary partnership with the municipality, because this is municipal property we're talking about... I'm enjoying the opportunity to show that this makes a heck of a lot of sense and asking, 'who is with me?'"