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This article was published 31/3/2018 (1062 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Around two dozen people gathered outside the Assiniboine Park Conservatory Saturday morning, two days before the public space closes its doors for the last time, to protest planned user fees at the facility set to replace it.
The protestors huddled together outside in the cold at 11 a.m., forming a circle not far from the entrance to the conservatory and listened to speeches from community organizers claiming the future site needs to remain accessible to everyone free of charge.
"A lot Winnipeggers live paycheck to paycheck, a lot of public money is going into the new facility, it’s on public land, it should continue to have no admission charge," said Molly McCracken, the demonstration’s organizer.
In addition to McCracken, community activist Paul Moist and Josh Brandon, city council candidate for Daniel McIntyre, also spoke at the event. They urged those in attendance to join them in a letter-writing campaign aimed at getting the proposed fees scrapped.
The conservatory, built in 1914, will be open to the public for the last time Monday. After that, the building is set to be torn down due to structural concerns. In its place will be built the $75-million Canada Diversity Gardens, a horticulture display several times the size of the conservatory.
Access to the interior conservatory at the new facility — called The Leaf — will require visitors and plant-lovers to shell out an admission fee. While it remains unclear how much that fee will be, McCracken says she’s heard estimates it could be as high as $10 to $20.
While McCracken said she’s hopeful the proposed fee will be reconsidered in the face of public pressure, according to a spokeswoman for Assiniboine Park the demonstrators shouldn’t hold their breath.
"There will be admission fees, yes… I think there are a lot of buildings, facilities and attractions that have public money go into them that charge admission. But we are sensitive to this issue. We realize there is a financial barrier for some members of our community," Assiniboine Park spokeswoman Laura Cabak said.
Cabak highlighted programming efforts at the Assiniboine Park Zoo (which used to be free, but now also charges for admission) aimed at making the space more accessible for lower-income Winnipeggers. In addition, she stressed the exterior gardens at the new site will be available for anyone to visit free of charge, with only the interior gardens costing money.
"The business model for Canada’s Diversity Gardens aims to provide a balance between free and admission-based experiences. The reality is that donation-based models are rare exceptions and it’s very difficult to operate with that model," Cabak said.
"We’ve initiated some programs at the zoo to remove those (financial) barriers for those most in need and I would expect we will do the same with Canada’s Diversity Gardens."
The new facility is being built with $60-million in public funds from the federal, provincial and municipal governments. The park and its assets are owned by the City of Winnipeg, which provides a $10.8-million grant (roughly 40 per cent of the park’s budget) annually for operating costs.
Cabak says the park has been mandated to become increasingly less reliant on public funds and user fees play an important role in those efforts.
However, McCracken counters that public assets like the Assiniboine Park are not businesses in the traditional sense and their priority needs to be serving all members of the community regardless of income level.
"This isn’t a business. These sorts of public spaces are for the enjoyment of the people who live here. That’s the profit. It’s a whole different model and we need to understand and appreciate that. There’s a mandate to serve the public," McCracken said.
Those sentiments were echoed by Brandon, who claims whenever public policy changes are implemented, the question Winnipeggers need to ask themselves is how it will impact the city’s poorest residents.
"When you put that poverty reduction lens on city policy, it’s pretty clear that a user fee on access to a critical piece of infrastructure like Assiniboine Park is headed in the wrong direction," Brandon said.
"We should ask ourselves, ‘How is this going to impact low-income residents? How is this going to impact the most vulnerable residents?’ We’re seeing a shift from access to city services as a right of citizenship to a user-pay model. But we need public services that are available to all."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.