The town of Canmore could soon be home to a proposed National Mountain Centre that would both educate visitors and provide a venue for some of the most esteemed climbing competitions in the world.

Planned as the biggest and most comprehensive facility of its kind in the world, the National Mountain Centre (NMC) would celebrate and promote the recreation, history, culture, biology and geology of Canada's mountains. The state-of-the-art facility would feature a gallery showcasing leading edge exhibitions, a meeting place and gathering wing, a theatre and lecture wing, a library, archives and a research wing. The building would be highly visible from the Trans-Canada Highway - possibly on Provincial land near the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel - and would serve as an essential stop for visitors entering the mountains.

Plans for the NMC have been growing for the past two years, said founding director Bob Sandford, developing from a 2003 proposal for an alpine museum supported by another of the NMC's founding directors, Canmore mountain guide and former Parks rescue specialist Peter Fuhrmann.

Realizing a traditional museum was too limited in scope to be self-sustaining, a group grew to become the NMC's founding directors. The group includes Doug Leonard, former director of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Robert Janes, former president and CEO of Calgary's Glenbow Museum and Canmore climber, writer and Canadian Alpine Journal editor Geoff Powter.

The NMC would provide a public presence for key mountain organizations including the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides, the Alpine Club of Canada, the Canadian Avalanche Association and Yellow to Yukon Conservation Initiative. With an orientation desk providing information ranging from the Columbia Icefields Centre to whitewater rafting to hiring a mountain guide to grizzly bear studies, the NMC would serve as a hub connecting visitors to the myriad of services and experiences the mountain region has to offer.

"We believe this project has the power to affirm a new vision for Canmore, and to revive the image and reputation of Banff and to revitalize the Rocky Mountains as a World Heritage Tourism destination," Sandford said.

Constructed as much as possible from green technology, the outside of the building would mirror its mountain surroundings, with visitors entering through a 'canyon' feature, and with interpretive paths leading to the roof or 'summit' lined with exhibits and displays, embedded in stone, describing the mountain's geological formation.

"We want to be certain it is definitely an architectural icon," Powter said. "So that when you look at the building, it won't look like something that belongs in Edmonton. Rather than a housing community, a golf community or a bedroom community, this centre will help define Canmore as what it should be - a mountain community. If you mention ice climbing in Canada in Scandinavia, Britain or the U.S., the instant response is - oh, Canmore! This community has an opportunity to recognize what an important role it plays on a world stage. In terms of mountaineering history, this is the centre of the country."

The centre would offer supervised instruction on outdoor boldering and climbing walls in summer and an ice climbing wall in winter, with its east wall constructed of glass, wood and stone providing a view of the country's largest indoor climbing wall.

"This will become the only facility in North America capable of handling World Cup level climbing competitions on plastic and ice," Powter said.

Thanks to "fantastic partnerships" with Western Economic Diversification, Alberta Economic Development, Parks Canada and through private sector donations, the directors have raised $250,000 for a feasibility study, which got underway about six weeks ago. The added support of the Town of Canmore and MLA Janis Tarchuk has been invaluable, Sandford said.

"They were very helpful in discussions with the Province, and without them we wouldn't have gotten the funding for the feasibility study," Sanford said.

The feasibility study will look at the revenue the centre could potentially generate, including use by visitors to the centre of local services such as hotels and shops. If the feasibility study shows the centre can't be self-sustaining, it won't happen, Powter said, but if the results show it would be self-sustaining, then construction could begin as soon as the summer of 2007.

"We are totally committed as a board to not build something that is not self-sustaining," Powter said.

As well, he added, it is essential the NMC would enhance businesses and services already in existence.

"It's really important to us that this is something that directs itself back out to the community," Powter said. "We don't want to just pitch ourselves. We're planning for the centre to be the beginning of the experience."

Currently the NMC directors are sharing presentations with key potential partners in the public and private sector in the Bow Valley. Early in the New Year they will expand their efforts to include 22 other mountain communities in the region.

"We want to make sure other communities know and support what we're planning," Sandford said. "It can't be just a Banff/Canmore scenario. It will likely be concentrated here, but it has to benefit other communities as well. We want it to work locally, but we also we want it to benefit the entire region."

With the average visitor who flies to Alberta spending only 15 minutes in Calgary before driving west - where their first stop is usually Banff Avenue - Powter said the NMC could very well serve as a primary interpretive source for the entire province. The idea is not to discourage people from strolling Banff Avenue, but to let them know that is but one of a wide range of experiences available to the mountain visitor.

"If what you get when you come to the mountains is less commercial and more educational, you can change people's impressions of what the mountains are," Powter said.

"It's a dream of a lifetime to give back to the community, and to help anchor the Bow Valley as a true mountain community. If we can define that, it will be a moment of transition for us."

Written by: Lynn Martel and published in the Special to Outlook.