Travel Manitoba is hiring outside help to come up with a list of the province’s most profitable parks and which assets could be unloaded — a move that will open the door to privatizing parts of the park system, a critic says.
The provincial Crown corporation issued a request for proposals last week seeking a consultant to develop a "business case for a new Manitoba Provincial Parks’ organizational model."
The contract is valued at $200,000 and would see the winning bidder evaluate all 76 operational provincial parks and rank the top 15 from a business feasibility perspective.
Travel Manitoba also wants to know which park assets should be divested, according to the request for proposals.
"The parks are not businesses," Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said in a phone interview Sunday. "One of the main reasons we have parks is to preserve nature, and it is for all of us."
The Crown corporation responsible for tourism growth in the province is asking the consultant to pinpoint opportunities for parks to be decommissioned or transitioned to other models, including having third-parties own or operate parks.
It also wants to know where the private sector, municipalities and First Nations can partner with the province to add to or improve park infrastructure.
"Some things are businesses and some things are services, and some things just shouldn’t be for sale, and we keep them from being sold in order to keep them for everyone," Lamont said. "We’re trying to preserve wilderness for the sake of future generations, not just saying how can we build an amusement park."
As part of the request for proposals, Travel Manitoba is asking the proponent to survey Manitobans on how they use provincial parks and gauge their tolerance for new tourism attractions — such as water parks or amusement parks, and luxury spas or hotels — in parks.
The study will also include a survey of people living and running businesses in parks to collect feedback on new organizational models and fee structures.
Part of the study will include a jurisdictional review of best practises in visitor experience, amenities and services, revenue, management and cost recovery models.
The final report will include recommendations for a new business model to increase visitor spending and direct government spending or divestment.
"It has the potential to be incredibly damaging to our parks and ruin just about everything that’s special about them and accelerate species loss," Lamont said. "The very things that you do to increase tourism and access undermines populations of animals."
Linda Whitfield, vice-president of marketing and communications with Travel Manitoba, deferred questions about the request for proposals on Sunday to Manitoba Conservation and Climate.
In a statement, a spokesman for the provincial government said the request for proposals is a "knowledge accumulation request, seeking consultation on public opinion on many features of parks."
"The government is committed to improving and modernizing the services we provide within our parks to ensure they are available to Manitobans for generations to come," the statement said.
The Free Press requested comment from Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard Sunday. A response was not provided by deadline.
Late last week, the provincial government said it would end the freeze on fees paid by cottage owners in provincial parks, with fees increasing by two per cent per year over the next three years until a new fee structure is put in place.
It will also spend $16.6 million at several provincial parks, including road improvements at Falcon Lake and water treatment improvements at Big Whiteshell, Birds Hill, Hecla-Grindstone and Paint Lake. Money has also been set aside to add more mobility mats to beaches in provincial parks.
According to the request for proposals, the province has noted financial sustainability challenges with all park revenue being consolidated to general revenue, limited cost recovery opportunities and no asset management system for parks.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.