Discovering Manitoba

How Thompson re-discovered its Spirit

How does a tough northern mining town change its self-image? How does that same northern mining town transform itself into a tourist destination while attracting both tour operators and travel writers from across the continent and beyond? And how does that diverse community bridge the gap between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal traditions to create a volunteer project that has become a tremendous source of community pride?

The answer to all the above for Thompson residents is Spirit Way. Spirit Way is a remarkable project that began in the small city of Thompson, population 16,000, and self-proclaimed “tough, northern mining town”. Originally born of a mining boom in 1950, Thompson found itself in a slump in 2001 after years of downward-trending markets. A three-month municipal strike had left the town awash in debris and people were demoralized. In response to this general malaise, the local chamber of commerce decided to form a committee whose mandate was to restore pride to the city and to create new bragging rights for its residents.

A relatively short time later, Thompson has become the proud home of an award-winning and internationally applauded walkway with 16 impressive “points of interest”, nothing less than the world’s only Robert Bateman mural, and a source of pride that continues to evolve. This “wonderful monster”, as one local resident has called it, got started as many projects do: incrementally.

In the summer of 2002, the Thompson Spirit Committee held a contest seeking 101 Ways to Make Thompson Better. From those initial ideas came six wildlife murals, each painted by a local artist and each one well received. At the same time, an idea was bandied about that would ultimately see Canada’s largest mural painted on the side of the 10-storey Highland Tower. As the site was toured, it was remarked that the rock below Highland Tower was two billion years old, and it too, should be displayed. Others suggested so too should the native boreal plants. The ideas then began to flow for a walkway from the Museum to the river.

Before long, the Spirit Way concept went from nine to 13 to 18 points of interest.  When it seemed the sheer scope and scale of Spirit Way might become unwieldy for its volunteers, community leaders were quick to lend assistance. Thompson Neighbourhood Renewal Corp. agreed to fund half of a professionally prepared Master Plan.

The Thompson Chamber of Commerce agreed to cover the other half. Six months later, Design North had identified a total of 18 points of interest and procured letters of support from 19 additional community organizations. Design North also identified potential funding channels and delivered presentations in Thompson, Nelson House and Winnipeg. Travel Manitoba indicated that Spirit Way could become a Manitoba Star Attraction. A surprise donation of $30,000 in February, 2004, by Inco Limited, Thompson’s main industry, helped further legitimize the grandiose plans.

The next 36 months saw Spirit Way directors meet weekly to plan and to raise money for the 18 sites. Through a partnership with North Central Development Corporation and Heritage Canada, Spirit Way was able to retain a short-term administrative person and to help the Committee with proposals and presentations for various levels of government and other agencies. A watershed moment occurred in June, 2005. At a fundraising gala for the Bateman mural, Manitoba Hydro CEO Bob Brennan announced a donation of $125,000 for the Spirit Way project. This was in direct response to a presentation made three weeks earlier to Manitoba Hydro by a contingent from Spirit Way Inc. Naturally, response to this announcement was ecstatic. Since then, those “18 points of interest” have become as real and as tangible to residents as that renewed sense of community pride once lacking in Thompson.

What began as mere good intentions in 2001 has evolved into a major attraction that has galvanized an entire populace and helped it transform its own self image. And while Thompson may still be, in part, a “tough, northern mining town”, it has created for itself a series of attractions now internationally recognized, that are helping to diversify the local economy, and that have made believers in the city of Thompson out of its own residents.

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