The $180-million makeover of Assiniboine Park will begin with four new amenities intended to make the city's biggest green space more accessible to families with little kids and recreational users.
Over the next 18 months, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy plans to spend $10 million to replace the park's aging playground with natural-looking play structures, triple the size of the duck pond and skating rink, carve a water-play area out of the woods and build a family centre with washrooms, a casual restaurant and some form of Winnie the Pooh commemoration.
The non-profit conservancy, a year-old agency in the process of taking over the management of Assiniboine Park, plans to release its long-term revitalization plan this morning. Underfunded for decades, the city's most popular park requires a massive infusion of cash to fix up its crumbling infrastructure and prevent aging attractions such as its zoo and conservatory from closing.
Over the next 10 years, the conservancy hopes to raise $180 million to build a new conservatory, give dilapidated Assiniboine Park Zoo a complete facelift -- including a state-of-the-art polar bear exhibit -- and fix up roads and improve landscaping throughout the park.
It hopes to start late this year with four improvements aimed at the people who already visit most frequently: families with little kids and recreational users such as joggers, cyclists and in-line skaters.
"The one complaint people most often make about the park is 'there's nowhere for me to get something to eat' or 'when I'm out running I can't get a cup of tea' or they need a place to warm up when they're cold," said Margaret Redmond, president and CEO of Assiniboine Park Conservancy.
To answer these complaints, the conservancy plans to build a new family centre overlooking both the duck pond and English Gardens, with the intention of making it the "heart of the park." The centre will have washrooms, changing rooms, a rentable second-floor space and a casual restaurant to complement the Assiniboine Park Pavilion's high-end Terrace 55.
To the immediate east, the park's duck pond will be tripled in size to surround the newly renovated skating shelter. The pond's fence will be removed so visitors can actually feed waterfowl, while new stepping stones, islands and footbridges will allow kids to interact with the pond, operate small boats and take part in environmental education programs, Redmond said.
"You can't do that when everything's behind a fence," she said.
Southwest of the pond, the park's playground will be replaced with a revised version of a natural play area the city commissioned back in 2004. The play area will feature wooden treehouses and use existing trees and other features of the landscape to give city kids a semblance of the experience cottage-goers get at the lake, Redmond said.
In the woods to the west of the playground, the conservancy plans to install an artificial "river" that will serve as a place to cool off in the park on warm summer days. The absence of a water-play area was another major complaint from park users, Redmond said.
The conservancy plans to raise the money for the short-term improvements from public and private sources and complete the work by late 2010. A formal campaign to raise all the funds required for the long-term park renewal plan will be launched this fall, Redmond said.
"This plan will only happen if all levels of government are involved and the community is involved in a major way," she said.
So far, only the City of Winnipeg has endorsed the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, although the province and Ottawa are expected to help out after city council formally approves the park's renewal plan.
The conservancy intends to pursue large private donations, as well as a grassroots fundraising campaign. Corporate sponsorship of park facilities is also expected to increase.
"You're not going to see Burger Kings in the park, but at the end of the day you will see corporate logos," said St. Charles Coun. Grant Nordman, who sits on the conservancy board.
A major corporate sponsor is also expected to fund the future polar bear exhibit, which should include an underwater viewing area and an Arctic environmental and cultural interpretive centre.
The Assiniboine Park Conservancy represents a last-ditch effort to revitalize the park, as a series of city efforts to renew the park on its own over the past two decades failed. The plan is to combine the fundraising efforts of three non-profit organizations that have been working for the park for years -- Friends of the Assiniboine Park Conservatory, the Zoological Society of Manitoba and Partners In The Park -- as well as Polar Bears International, whose offices are based in the park's pavilion.
"We've had a few false starts when it comes to redoing parts of the park. This is the first time we have a vision, not just for the low-hanging fruit, but also for the future," Nordman said.