By Troy Bannerman
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
As many Albertans looked for local locations to spend their holidays during the COVID-19 pandemic, one attraction benefitted in an unexpected way.
The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre saw an increase in the total number of visitors during the COVID era as locals flocked to the site. This trend has continued with attendance continuing to grow.
In a recent interview Joey Ambrosi, the facility supervisor at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre, stated his surprise at this recent trend.
“Because there were parts of ’20 and ’21 where we had to actually close the building – but that was over the winter – there were three staff that still came in. We had lots of stuff to do. It was actually really nice to be able to get to the stuff that we don’t normally get to. But we were open both summers and it surprised us that the summer of 2020 and the summer of 2021 were both higher in attendance at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre than each of the previous three, four or five summers. It was strange,” said Ambrosi.
“I attribute it largely to the fact that Albertans weren’t going out to B.C. and then out to Montana and stuff like that – part of it you couldn’t get into Montana. But even to go to B.C., people were sort of apprehensive.
“So I think it was actually a big adventure for lots of people from Calgary, Edmonton to come down this way and still stay within Alberta. And also the Crowsnest Pass, as you know, has lots of outdoor activities like hiking and fishing, mountain biking, stuff like that. So people came down to do stuff and they thought, ‘Well, we’ll go into the Frank Slide Centre.’ And we had it all set up. There were only a certain number of people who could be in. And we had everything set up for COVID safety on all kinds of stuff,” he added.
When guests arrived at the centre, staff asked for a name and phone number of one person in each group “just in case we heard that COVID had been there we could call them. Just by the phone numbers there were probably, I’d say, 70 per cent 403, and then 25 per cent 780. So it was largely Albertans, a few B.C. and a few people from outside the province. But very, very few, not as many as we normally would get, Ambrosi said.
Staff were shocked by the attendance when they counted the numbers with people lined up at the centre doors every day.
“Depending on what part of COVID it was, we could only have either 50 people in the building or later on 75, and then 100. So we had to limit it. Some people had to kind of wait outside, so we had our staff doing some of the programming outside so they could talk to people. So it wasn’t just a boring wait there. It worked out actually pretty good for us,” Ambrosi said.
“I think what also happened was that people started to learn about the Crowsnest Pass. They didn’t even realize that it was down here.”
And there has been a carryover effect since then.
“Now we are getting more international visitors of course. But, still lots of people who said, ‘Yeah, we came down in COVID and we wanted to come back and spend a little more time here. So, I think people are learning about the Crowsnest Pass. – there’s a little bit of an upswing in tourism.”
The Crowsnest Pass offers a beautiful and scenic drive, and the location of the Interpretive Centre offers a breathtaking view of where Turtle Mountain came down in 1904. The Frank Slide Interpretive Centre offers a variety of programming and displays, Ambrosi said.
“Now, as for the Centre itself, we are open year-round other than Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and Easter Sunday are the only days we’re closed. For the last two winters we’ve closed on Mondays. But in mid-May until Thanksgiving we are open seven days a week. We do public programming.”
The centre features four levels of displays and exhibits, as well as two high-definition movies, one specifically about the Frank Slide and one about the history about the Crowsnest Pass area. The centre also has interpreters doing programming in the theatre and free programming out on the boardwalk, out front.
“In the summer we do guided trail hikes that are free as well,’ he added.
There is an admission charge but visitors can still look at the slide from outdoors and visit the gift shop and use the washroom for no fee.
“There is a cost if you’re through the exhibits, which is definitely worthwhile. And I believe our best advertising is still our word of mouth. People really enjoy this place and they tell their friends,” said Ambrosi.
The centre also does education programming with school classes spending part of a day there. School visits come from Calgary, Lethbridge and anywhere in southern Alberta. “They get a variety of programming based on whether they want social studies or science or language arts, and whether its a kindergarten class or whether it’s a Grade Eight class. We have a whole bunch of different programs that are all designed for that. We also do a sleep-over program that obviously was put on hold during COVID. But we are in the process of getting that back online. So it might not be full blown this year, but I think by next year it will be back to where it was at,” Ambrosi added.
Of sleep-overs about 35 to 45 a year are from schools, Cub Scouts and Girl Guides.
“It allows them, kids and schools from places like Edmonton or further farther afield to come down here and they get a catered meal, then they bring their sleeping bag and sleep in the centre, and they get a nice breakfast. And they get a number of educational programs from here. It’s a great program.”