Exclusive: Heritage Park embarks on $10M expansion to celebrate energy industry

He was a kid who grew up soaking in the stories of the city and province of his birth, his history-loving father making sure he inherited a passion for knowing about the people and stories of earlier times.

“Dad was the news editor of the Calgary Herald for many years,” says Bob Brawn. “I was a paperboy, as were my two brothers. That’s how we learned to handle money.”

His dad, Gerry Brawn, wasn’t your average news gatherer, though. He also had a sideline hobby of documenting the history of the Herald, a place he called home beginning in the 1930s and ending with his retirement in 1970, earning him the nickname “pack rat” of the paper’s history.

Gerry Brawn’s son didn’t end up following in his late father’s footsteps as a newspaperman. Instead, Bob Brawn, like so many who graduated university in the mid-20th century, heeded the call of a burgeoning new industry in Alberta: energy.

The younger Brawn, though, kept those early history lessons close to his heart. Earlier this year, he stepped up as the founding donor of an ambitious new project by Heritage Park that will honour and celebrate those early pioneers of Alberta’s oilpatch, telling their stories to a new generation of visitors to the park.

“I think we owe it to historians and the people who started this business, from Dingman back in 1914,” says Brawn of the proposed project that will share the highs and lows of a heady century of discovery and industry. “All the old pioneers, I think, should be remembered.”

“This is the story about Alberta and Western Canada’s riches when it comes to natural resources,” says Alida Visbach, the park’s president and CEO, speaking on a recent day prior to Heritage Park’s official launch of a $10-million capital campaign for the project.

“I’m not talking just about minerals and oil and gas; I’m also talking about our natural flora and fauna, the water and the sun,” adds Visbach. “All the things that we as western Canadians take for granted but that are there.”

With a working title of The Natural Resources Project, the campaign hopes to raise the necessary funds for a variety of programs and offerings, focusing on an interpretive centre that will tell the stories of Alberta’s early oil and gas pioneers, today’s energy industry and explore emerging technologies that will ensure a sustainable, low-carbon future.

The Brawn Family Foundation, which Bob Brawn formed with his wife Carole in 1976, has pledged $500,000 to kickstart the project, which has a mission to educate visitors about the past, present and future of Alberta’s energy sector.

“As a family, the values always instilled was to give back,” says Bob’s son, Dean Brawn, who today helps his family run the foundation that has supported such organizations as the Alberta Children’s Hospital and the Calgary Zoo. “His parents and my mom’s parents, both sides, it’s always been that way.”

It’s only natural that Bob Brawn would combine his reverence for history with telling the stories of the energy sector. He started out in the 1950s working at an oil recycling plant in Edmonton, a plant he would later purchase and merge with several gasoline stations around the province.

Brawn would go on to launch another oil company, in between raising four kids with Carole and serving as a volunteer with everything from the Rotary Club of South Calgary to the 1988 Calgary Olympic Games committee.

Although Heritage Park does have some nods to the energy industry with such attractions as a Dingman No. 1 oil well replica and a gold mining tunnel, Visbach says much of it has fallen into disrepair over the years. A long-term master plan for the park, which began in 2014, looked at ways to bring these and other attractions back to life.

That sparked a more intense discussion about “how to recognize the mavericks from way back when, who took those risks, who were searching for that great strike,” she says.

Today, the park’s plans include the interpretive centre — a 4,500-square-foot building powered on renewable energy — which will also feature virtual reality technology to tell the stories of the past, present and future.

Rendering of the interpretive centre proposed for Heritage Park.

“We’re not just talking about the past, we’re using the past to form who we are today, and who we will be tomorrow,” says Visbach of the project.

For Brawn, looking back on those mavericks who helped build this province’s energy industry, and indeed fuel Canada’s economy for the better part of a century, reflects those values he learned at his father’s knee.

“Teach people that this place was developed by hard work from people who were pioneers 100 years ago,” he says of his decision to “plant the seed” for this new initiative.

“Education is the most important part of it.”

vfortney@postmedia.com

Twitter: @ValFortney

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