July 4, 2020

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Opinion

Publicly funded Diversity Gardens should be kept open to everyone

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The Assinboine Park Conservatory has long been an indoor park for our winter city.</p>

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Assinboine Park Conservatory has long been an indoor park for our winter city.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/3/2018 (825 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

People of all ages and walks of life will dearly miss the historic Assiniboine Park Conservatory, which has been available at no cost. Soon, a new structure with an entrance fee will replace it: the Leaf at Canada’s Diversity Gardens. It, too, should be freely available to all.

Due to structural problems, the conservatory has reached the end of its life and is closing Monday. Assiniboine Park has been home to the conservatory — and previously the Palm House — for more than 100 years. A trip to the conservatory has long been a winter escape, particularly for those who cannot afford to go south in the winter.

Public parks are places of natural beauty and should be gathering places for people regardless of their ability to pay. Research by the Public Health Agency of Canada shows that green spaces reduce chronic disease while boosting mental health. In one of the coldest urban centres on the planet, the conservatory has been like an indoor park for our winter city.

Assiniboine Park is now in phase three of the Imagine a Place plan to create a world-class park with a major focus on attracting tourists. Statistics Canada data show three times as many tourists visit Winnipeg in the summer as in the winter.

Diversity Gardens will receive many more visitors in the summer; those who live here and endure winter for six long months arguably need an indoor green space that is accessible year-round.

Many facilities worldwide are successful without admission charges. The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in Minnesota operates on a voluntary donation basis and people are welcome even if they cannot make a donation. An American study found one-third of U.S. art galleries do not charge admission.

If the Leaf at Diversity Gardens has free admission, attendance would be much higher than otherwise. Attendees could be encouraged to make a donation, which would recoup a great deal of the forgone admission revenue. And if there is free admission, patrons will be far more likely to spend money at the café or gift shop.

The Assiniboine Park Zoo was once free. I was talking with a child-care worker who has not been to the new zoo because her family can’t afford the $76.60 entrance cost for a family of four.

If a fee is charged at the Leaf at Diversity Gardens, they likely will not be able to afford to visit this facility, either.

Assiniboine Park gives out free zoo passes, via community agencies, for those in need. But this charity only goes so far because only a limited number are given out. If people do not have a connection to a community agency, they can’t get a pass. Moreover, there is dignity and choice in attending based on one’s own availability rather than hoping for a free pass or waiting for one free day per year.

The Diversity Gardens will be built with $60 million in federal, provincial and municipal public funding and $15 million in private funding.

While being responsible for millions in public money, the Assiniboine Park Conservancy is introducing user fees into the park, with no consultation with Winnipeggers on the imposition of these fees.

When the park was still governed by the city, the standing policy committee on protection and community services promised citizens would have free access to Assiniboine Park. The park’s governance model was changed under the auspices of streamlining management and to attract more private investment to subsidize eroding city funding. Notably, city operating and capital funding has increased since the conservancy was created to respond to the new "Imagine a Place" plan.

The conservancy is seeking more earned revenue to achieve self-sufficiency, an elusive goal for non-profit charities. Organizations such as the conservancy, by their very nature, require public funding to fulfil their mandate — in this case, a beautiful park for all Winnipeggers to enjoy.

Assiniboine Park has been transformed in the past 10 years, with many wonderful new amenities being added. Can the conservancy think outside the fee-based-model box, along with the city of Winnipeg, and find a way for the new conservatory to continue to be available at no charge?

Imagine an indoor park in Winnipeg everyone can enjoy. Models exist elsewhere that can be adopted if the imagination is open to this possibility. It is not too late to think creatively so that the Leaf at Canada’s Diversity Gardens is a place where every Winnipegger feels they belong.

Molly McCracken fondly remembers visits to the Assiniboine Park Conservatory with her mother and grandparents. This winter, she took her baby son to share this experience with him.

A local group is organizing on this issue: facebook.com/NoUserFeesDiversityGardens/

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