The Assiniboine Park's policy of charging a $40 user fee for prime picnic spots is tough for some users to stomach.
The issue is drawing attention now because new signs have been erected at the spots for which reservation fees are collected. Previously, the sites were booked through a city-run website, but now that the park is run by a conservancy, it has taken over the fee collection.
Elton Guerreiro and Svieta Hladkikh noticed the signs while celebrating their wedding anniversary in the park last week. They say they had never noticed them before and found them "weird."
"To pay for it at all in the first place is not right. If it's a city and a public park, then my tax dollars are already going there," Guerreiro said.
They are not the only users bothered by the charge.
"For $40, I'd rather just stay home in the backyard," said Eric Anderson, who picnicked in Assiniboine Park with his wife, Claudia, and four-year-old daughter Mattea.
"That's like a night out for us, so I don't see it really being worth it."
The tab for a sheltered site is $50. Paying the fee allows exclusive use of the site for up to four hours. Picnic tables that are not in prime locations are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Assiniboine Park Conservancy says the signs are around sites in prime areas and feature a laminated holder for authorized permits.
Park security officers place the permits there at the beginning of each day and check back later to shoo away squatters.
"The only time we ever kick people out is if someone is using a site that's already been paid for," said Derek Blackman-Shaw, director of park security.
"Usually we go about an hour before someone's booked the site and let anyone already using it know they've got to clear out. Usually they drag their feet a bit, but we never have too much trouble," Blackman-Shaw said.
Kevin Hunter, the conservancy's director of marketing, says even though the signs are relatively new, the fees aren't.
"They've been in place since before the conservancy existed, except before they were collected by the city. Now they're collected by the conservancy for park upkeep. It's nothing different from before. The fees still go back to the park," Hunter said.
The city has had fees in place as far back as 2004 to guarantee the use of picnic shelters.
The Assiniboine Park booking fees appear to be a bargain compared with other city-run parks such as Kildonan or St. Vital parks. Four hours at a picnic shelter in one of those parks costs $96.60. Some of the shelters have electrical outlets and hold up to 50 people.
Other city-run parks, such as Bruce and La Barriere don't offer bookings due to popularity.
Assiniboine Park has received a facelift in recent years. In 2010, it shed city control in favour of the not-for-profit conservancy. However, it still receives funding from the city: $50 million over 10 years.
The conservancy wasted little time once taking over by green-lighting a massive $200-million redevelopment of both the park and the zoo with projects such as the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, the Qualico Family Centre and the Journey to Churchill exhibit.
Since its takeover, the conservancy has also undergone a policy change when it comes to collecting money for booking the picnic sites. As recently as October 2010, the picnic shelter fees were collected through the city's 311 phone line. The park's website now instructs users to call the park to book the sites.
Hunter said the money from the picnic-table bookings doesn't go toward improvements but to maintenance.
"The fees collected go towards revenue for park upkeep. The only updates we've made to the sites are increasing the level of service to the sites," Hunter said. "It's still a free park and we want to keep it that way."