‘It’s catch-up time’ for provincial parks
Sustainability review recommends $90M in capital improvements, increasing fees to raise revenues
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Adding glamping experiences, building a resort hotel at Grand Beach, hiking fees and making more than $90 million in capital improvements are among recommendations to boost revenue at Manitoba parks, as groups call for urgent spending to improve the delivery of basic services.
In late December, the provincial government released the findings of a sustainability review by Manitoba firm Meyers Norris Penny, which was hired in December 2020 to rank the most profitable parks in the province.
The 114-page report prioritized Birds Hill, Clearwater Lake, Grand Beach, Hecla Grindstone, Spruce Woods, and Whiteshell Provincial Parks as locations where the government would get the best bang for its buck while increasing visits and improving facilities.
On top of prioritizing a fraction of the 76 parks for investment, the authors recommend increasing fees to market rates, improving wastewater capacity, enhancing backcountry management, and modernizing facilities as part of a new parks strategy.
“We’re way behind and have been for years in modernizing our infrastructure and keeping up with what other provincial parks in other provinces are offering their visitors. It’s catch-up time,” said Caleigh Christie, president of the South Whiteshell Trails Association and the general manager of Falcon Trails Resort.
Christie said the report contains positive recommendations for Whiteshell Provincial Park and she’s encouraged by its focus on the mandate of parks to protect and conserve while recognizing public demand.
However, a chronic lack of parks staff has meant volunteer associations and businesses have maintained trails, facilities and even garbage pickup in Whiteshell, Christie said.
The report states budget restrictions, staffing cuts and closures of park gates mean Manitoba has fallen behind other park systems.
“(Employees) are strapped and don’t have the right talents in there because they don’t have great pay for their positions,” Christie said. “They’re not attracting the talent that needs to be in those positions to operate the park well.”
Christie said fee hikes could be well-received if the province assures the public the money is reinvested in parks and access for low-income Manitobans is maintained.
“People know and they recognize that trails are not free and there’s a lot of cost associated with maintenance,” Christie said. “Parks in general need more funding in its direction.”
The report recommends the province add more than 350 campsites, including 100 glamorous camping — otherwise known as glamping or luxury camping — options in six parks; upgrade electrical, washrooms, picnic shelters, sewage lagoons, and more; increase partnerships with private, commercial operators; and build a new resort hotel at Grand Beach in partnership with the private sector.
A high-level estimate to carry out the improvements, not including costs to private partners, was just under $34 million. According to the report, the investment, coupled with increasing fees for camping and vehicle passes to market rates, would turn a net operating deficit of nearly $500,000 for the six parks to an annual profit of $2.6 million.
The report does not propose an increase to cottage lease fees.
However, it recommends another $50.4 million in capital spending at nine other prioritized parks.
It estimates the cost of improvements at all provincial parks would reach $97.7 million.
North Whiteshell Business Association president D.J. Seales said he expects the price tag to modernize park infrastructure would come in significantly higher. He said any investments need to be focused on long-term needs and demand decades into the future.
“Let’s not just throw money at something. It’s already gone past that point,” he said. “Let’s look at where we want it for the future.”
There is an urgent need to upgrade Provincial Road 307, Seales said, noting safe road access to park facilities and businesses along the roadway is crucial to attracting tourists and daytrippers. Infrastructure investments in the park have been lacking for over a decade, he said.
“If you’re going to make the park successful… and have more tourism, you need to have the quality infrastructure in place, and there needs to be money budgeted for upkeep and improving it,” said Seales, who owns Barrier Bay Resort.
The Progressive Conservative government promised a capital plan for provincial parks in its last throne speech, but no details have been released.
Seales and Christie both applauded recommendations to build a new campground in Whiteshell, with as many as 30 yurts, and to partner with commercial operators, saying a market exists for increased business. Both said the Manitoba Parks department has shown a willingness to work with operators to address red tape.
NDP critic Lisa Naylor called the report an invitation to privatize services in parks while leaving the door open to divesting park assets. In the original tender, the consultant was asked to determine which assets should be divested and to identify opportunities to decommission parks to other models.
Those questions were not addressed in the report.
“There’s no clear statement of intent not to do so, and so far, that is how the PCs have increased profitability in parks,” she said.
She raised concern the government is emphasizing revenue over benefits that can’t be accounted for on a balance sheet, including the well-being of Manitobans and conservation of biodiversity.
“My perspective is that protected areas… have long-term impact of making our province healthier, making it safer, helping protect us from future climate change,” Naylor said. “That is an investment that’s hard to measure. We have an obligation to be investing in that.”
She said the NDP would not increase park user fees if it forms government in the next election, which is set for the fall. A plan to “keep parks accessible and affordable” is expected during the campaign.
Parks Minister Jeff Wharton was not available for an interview on Tuesday. In a prepared statement, Wharton said the report provides a “compelling case for renewed investments in our parks, consistent with a strategic infrastructure investment plan, to modernize and transform parks into the future.”
The recommendations are being reviewed, he said.
Wharton said a multi-year capital investment strategy is in the works and the government is committed to keeping parks public. He said the government will maintain park fees at current rates throughout the 2023 camping season.
“Manitobans have told us that they value and cherish our parks and we are making investments to ensure the legacy of our public parks system is protected for current and future park visitors,” Wharton said.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.