Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Build it and campers will come

EcoVillage an eco-friendly place to enjoy nature

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NEAR RICHER -- Eco Beach is not so far away in time after all, to transmogrify the famous Martha and the Muffins song.

A 25-metre-foot windmill tower is aerating it right now, along the Trans-Canada Highway about 50 kilometres east of Winnipeg.

The beach is part of the larger EcoVillage campground being constructed by Tony and Mandy Gibson of Winnipeg. For Tony, a University of Manitoba mechanical engineering grad, building the campground is a dream.

"I've always had a passion for wind energy, solar energy and straw houses," Gibson said. EcoVillage will combine all three.

He also has a passion to be an entrepreneur. He admits to being a disciple of book, Rich Dad, Poor Dad, by investment gurus Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter. That helped convince him to leave his job of nine years and strike out on his own.

He disses many commercial ecological claims as gimmicks, and, "in my view, 95 per cent BS." He insists his EcoVillage is the real thing. The plan is to make the greenery greener than other campgrounds, although there's a price.

"If we're going to call ourselves green, we're going to be green, even though it will cost," he said.

The idea for EcoVillage was born when the young couple -- Tony is 31 and Mandy is 30 -- couldn't find a camping spot out Trans-Canada way, east of Winnipeg. "Every single campground had a waiting list," he said.

So they bought an 88-acre parcel of land and set to work constructing their own.

This is along the corridor from Winnipeg to Sandilands Provincial Forest. There is a surprising amount of commerce along the strip today, including six campgrounds within 20 minutes of each other, Gibson said. That includes places like Cripple Creek Campground and Lilac Resort Campground.

Heavy rains set EcoVillage construction back this spring, so the campground is still two to three weeks away from opening. It will open with 18 berths, 13 of which have already been leased. The next bay, likely completed by August, will have 17 berths. The plan is to eventually build up to 280 campsites.

These are not for tenters but are seasonal sites for recreational vehicles and large campers. The Gibsons are planning to offer free occupancy in August so people can see what they're all about.

Their commitment to ecology starts with the wind tower along the highway. A second 25-metre wind tower, capable of powering about three houses, Gibson said, will power a seven-person hot tub on the site.

All the resort buildings will be powered by solar and wind. The office will also be a straw bale house. Straw provides three times the insulation as regular home insulation, and doesn't require a vapour barrier -- sheet of plastic to keep moisture from coming in and out -- because it breathes and filters air. The bales are then stuccoed both inside and outside.

The other neat thing about straw buildings is they don't require studs. The roof rafters sit right on the stacked straw walls, Gibson said.

Ten cabins will be built around a private lake and they will run exclusively off two more large wind towers and roof top solar panels. One or two cabins should be up this fall. They will each have a small hot tub, kitchenette and deck facing the lake.

A campground amphitheatre for watching movies will also run off grid.

"It's old technology, pretty easy stuff, and it's been around for a long time," Gibson said.

However, the power for the fully serviced campsites will not be off-grid. It would be too costly. Provinces like Ontario offer financial incentives for wind and solar power but there is little of that in Manitoba with its cheap hydroelectricity, Gibson said. The Eco Beach is made from a sand dug out after highway workers excavated the sand many years ago to repair the Trans-Canada. Gibson dug out more sand to build vehicle trails through the campground. The artificial lake is small but up to four metres deep and includes a water trampoline. Aeration by the wind tower keeps water clean and discourages algae growth.

While trees were shed to make roads and camping berths, Gibson did not clear out forest for electricity and water lines like many campgrounds do. The campsites are very treed, with 15 metres of forest between berths.

Because much of Manitoba has turned into swamp from recent rains -- EcoVillage got 150 millimetres in three days -- mosquitoes are making life difficult for construction workers there. EcoVillage will erect bat houses and use bat control for mosquitoes, instead of propane tanks like some private campgrounds.

Gibson, who grew up on a farm near Treherne, said leasing campsites is much less expensive than owning a cottage. A person can buy a trailer for $10,000 to $15,000, and lease a campsite for $2,500 a year at EcoVillage, or less if a person signs a multi-year lease, he said. Average cottages in the Canadian Shield sell in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.

Gibson said some leaseholders of campsites along the Trans-Canada corridor east of Winnipeg are now selling their spots for $40,000 and up. Buyers would still have to pay the annual campground lease fee.

EcoVillage is located on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway, a half kilometre west of Geppetto's Wood Shop and snack house. Its website is ecovillageresort.ca.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2010 H16

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