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People enjoy the sunshine on the pier at Granville Island in Vancouver on May 8.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

On a sunny spring weekend, the plaza in front of the market on Vancouver’s Granville Island is lively. A crowd has gathered around Quinn Beasley on his unicycle, watching him teeter precariously while he jokes and pedals.

There are people like Rhoda Best and her family, Australians now living in Seattle, who travelled to B.C. once the border was open.

“We’re just looking around, seeing some touristy sites,” Ms. Best said.

These are the kinds of people who disappeared from Granville Island temporarily during the height of the pandemic, visitors who go there mainly for the festival-like feeling and entertainment for children. They might buy a few small things, but that’s not primarily why they’re here.

The island’s managers and business owners are relieved to see them back. But their return is also a reminder of the continuing struggle the island has had for the last few years over its identity and the uncertainty over its future.

Granville Island is a creation of the 1970s, one of many public markets in Canada and the U.S. that were set up or refreshed in that era as private entrepreneurs and various levels of governments looked to bring people back to the central city, put money into urban renewal and offer both residents and tourists a very different experience from the generic shopping malls, overrun tourist districts or chain grocery stores that proliferated in the 1950s and 60s.

But those markets – Granville Island included – are now searching for ways to compete in cities that have sprouted many farmers’ markets and hipster business zones since the 1970s. Like them, it is also trying to find the right balance of serving locals and being a regional, national and international tourist attraction.

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Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

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Above: Cyclists pass the entrance to Granville Island. Below: People shop for fresh fruit inside the public market.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

The last two years were some of the best that goldsmith Pernilla Arhnstedt has had in her 21 years on the island. Many more Vancouverites, forced to stay home because of the pandemic and to turn to places they’d thought of as too touristy, started appearing. “Suddenly it was enjoyable for locals,” Ms. Arhnstedt said. The food stalls were also popular with residents, as they took to exploring and shopping in their own city.

Not everyone experienced that kind of bump. Those who catered more to tourists, with fast food and small souvenir-type products, certainly did not.

“The last two years were very quiet. We had a third of our usual sales,” said Diana Sanderson at the Silk Weaving Studio, which operates out of a non-subsidized space managed by the nearby Sandbar restaurant. “It was wonderful to see the local people, but I didn’t realize how many tourists there had been.”

Both types of business-owners – those who did better when the tourists were gone and those who didn’t – realized how the island changed when the out-of-town visitors vanished. And it made everyone think in a different way about the island’s future.

“It had become a victim of its own success,” Ms. Arhnstedt said. “We should not ban tourists, but we need to make it clear what the island is about.”

That’s the daunting mission of the island’s current general manager, Tom Lancaster, hired in October, 2020, with the specific task of making a 2040 vision for Granville Island – developed five years ago – into a reality.

That means more ways for locals to get there easily: through bike paths, a new bike bridge from the seawall and, everyone is hoping, the much-talked-about streetcar from the enormous Squamish Nation development that will add 12 big new towers and 6,000 new apartments at Burrard Bridge. Getting more people to the island without more cars is an article of faith.

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Pedestrians watch a group of goslings and geese on Granville Island.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

It will also require filling three major holes on the island – a vacant lot and two large empty buildings. And, finally, it demands that Granville Island stay financially healthy, while also focusing on the kind of creative mission usually reserved for utopian communes.

It’s a walk across hot coals to accomplish all of that.

“The tension is between change and keeping it the same,” Mr. Lancaster said. “And people don’t want a corporate presence, but it has to get paid for somehow.”

Unlike other public markets created in the 1970s, Granville Island is in a class of its own. It’s not just a single building, as some are, but an entire manufactured piece of land in False Creek, which includes a hotel, an arts-education school, restaurants, multiple spaces for theatrical performances, boat-maintenance shops, its own park and, recently, the city’s premier dance company, Ballet BC.

Its mission is to be an innovation hub for arts, food and performance, and the “most inspiring public place in the world,” Mr. Lancaster said.

But, for many years, Granville Island has been run by federal bureaucrats from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). (Mr. Lancaster, a city planner who has experience with Metro Vancouver and the City of North Vancouver, is a departure from that.)

The general public and many people who work on or advocate for the island have insisted since the beginning that it not be taken over by bland corporateness.

Chain operations of most kinds – movies, coffee shops, restaurants – have been rejected both formally and in the court of public opinion.

The decision by the previous manager to sign a lease with the owner of local chain Tap & Barrel to operate the former Bridges restaurant has been met with a lot of criticism. But it’s not clear whether a local kitchen entrepreneur with less capital could have come up with the millions that Daniel Frankel, the nephew of one of Bridges’ original founders, Michael Seelig, is now spending to upgrade the space.

Mr. Lancaster said CMHC tried for years to find a smaller operator and was unsuccessful. (He does hint that there’s been a new tenant found for another key building, the one-time Isadora’s on the south side of the island, which became a Browns Socialhouse for a while. That news, and a few other new tenants, are due to be announced sometime soon.)

At the same time, the people who runs arts-related businesses on the island are able to survive because of significantly below-market rents – rents that are subsidized by the profit-making parts of the island, particularly the market.

The island, frequently listed as one of Vancouver’s top attractions, has no money for major improvements. It has had a big void the last five years, since Emily Carr University of Art + Design moved its operations to industrial land in east Vancouver, taking its approximately 2,000 young students with them – a move that notably reduced the number of 20-somethings coming to the island.

One of the university’s two former buildings is sitting empty because the 1970s structure needs $65-million for upgrading. And Granville Island has always been operated on a break-even basis, with no money ever set aside for the kinds of major upgrades that even the most feckless strata council has to plan for.

Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry blames Stephen Harper’s Conservatives for some of the problems, saying they let the island stagnate. She’s the one who pushed for a plan to develop a new vision for the island after the Liberals formed government in 2015 – a plan that has resulted in the reinstatement of the Granville Island Council, which gives some small measure of control back to community representatives, and a lot of new ambitions.

One of the new council’s members is former Vancouver city councillor Heather Deal. “We want more night life. We want to expand the market. We need to upgrade the public activities. We need more diversity. We’d like to see it look more like the city,” Ms. Deal said. “It feels like it’s still very much in the seventies. It’s a little bit cast in amber.”

The biggest project is the transformation of the former Emily Carr building and Charles Scott gallery into a kind of maker hub for artists and food producers, with operations visible to the public, as is required of all the artisans on the island, and retail components for many of them.

And there is talk about more of a presence for Vancouver’s Indigenous nations, who don’t have a land claim related to Granville Island (it was nothing more than a sandbar when the Squamish had a settlement at Kitsilano Point). There are occasional discussions that they might take over management of the island some day. But all indications are that’s unlikely in the near future, as the three nations are preoccupied with a lot of new business, arts and education ventures – and especially development – at the moment.

So for now, the immediate focus – and weak point – is where to get the money to carry out the big new plans. Granville Island isn’t allowed to raise taxes, borrow money or create a strata-like reserve fund for any big changes.

“It means CMHC will have to put in some money. But it needs partners,” Ms. Fry said. “They are now invested in the long-term future of the island, but they know they cannot do it on their own.”

Ms. Fry’s ability to leverage benefits for Vancouver from the federal government will be key to the future of Granville Island, as will the strategy of bringing in new partners – partners who will have to be willing to spend money but also be the right fit for the broad vision of what the island should be.

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A man reads a book inside the public market while people are seen enjoying the sun on the pier.Jesse Winter/The Globe and Mail

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