Ontario Town 'Scrapes By' in Park Operations
Estimates that range from $1.3 million to $1.7 million for upgrades to the 190-campsite Falls Reserve Conservation Area near Goderich, Ontario, have prompted its operators to consider leasing the park to a private company.
A call for proposals to run the 130-acre park along the Maitland River could go out as early as next spring, says Jayne Thompson, communication coordinator for the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority (MVCA), which owns the park, Huron News Now, Goderich, reported.
The decision to consider leasing the park was made this past May by the board of the conservation authority, which is jointly owned by municipalities in the Maitland River watershed.
The MVCA purchased the 230-acre Falls Reserve for $8,000 in 1964, running it as a day-use campground. Colborne Township created a paved roadway, service buildings and a gatehouse were installed, stairs to the falls were built, and staff was hired to collect fees. In 1971, the park officially opened and washrooms, showers and services to the campground areas were added.
That infrastructure is now aging and in need of significant investment. Annual budgets that rely solely on revenue generated in the park have paid for urgent repairs but haven’t kept up with long-term infrastructure replacement. In 2013, the MVCA will have spent $28,725 of its $316,5000 budget to repair a roof, fix a mower, pay back money used to buy a truck and upgrade the water system.
“We’re barely scraping through with that and we know we can’t continue to operate as we do today,” said Geoff King, the MVCA’s stewardship services coordinator, during a recent tour of the falls reserve by board members. “It’s a big challenge for us.”
In recent years, the park has seen a decline in day use and in transient camping, who want higher amperages and larger spaces to accommodate modern recreational vehicles. They also want improved facilities, which may include a splash pad, according to a study of services done by BC Hughes Consulting in Owen Sound.
At the same time, the board is trying to balance the service needs with the goals a strategic plan completed four years ago, which set the priorities of building watershed resiliency for healthy environment and flood forecasting system.
“It’s a really special place from an environmental perspective. It’s nestled right into a bend of the Maitland River. It’s got these very unique limestone bluffs, or cliffs. We’re deep in the river valley here. So it really is quite a special place,” Thompson said.
The park also underwent a master planning process, with environmental impact study (EIS) for the property completed in 2011. Among the recommendations from the EIS were a single centralized sewage facility in one of the campgrounds to replace an aging and inadequate facility, switch to compost or relocate washrooms at the concession stand that are in a highly vulnerable area, accelerate the naturalization of one of the campground areas to meet the MVCA’s conservation goals, and close the group camp area which is located on a floodplain.
“It becomes a question of how do we justify that kind of infrastructure money going into here when it’s maybe not our key priority for the organization. At the same time, it’s a loved place, both by the local community and the campers using it and we want to continue to offer the opportunity for people to come in and use the property. And so that leasing option at this point seems like a solid option to investigate and to look at,” Thompson said.
Thompson said that while the MVCA continues to explore the leasing option, the Falls Reserve remains open for business.
“We’re a long way from actually moving to the leasing option. There’s a lot of work that would need to be done before that would actually happen,” she said, noting the request for proposal will ensure the conservation authority’s policies continue to be followed and include stipulations that its agreements for use by the Maitland Trail Association and the Above the Falls Challenge Course will continue to be honored. She expects an RFF will be circulated in spring 2014 with a plan to move ahead no earlier than 2015.
“Right now, Falls Reserve is open for business. Fall is a gorgeous time of year to come out. The park is open until Oct. 14. Beautiful sunny days, lots of migrating birds, and almost no mosquitos. So it’s a terrific time to visit the park,” she said.
A volunteer group of seasonal campers at the Falls Reserve has asked the board to work with it to find a way to keep the campground under the umbrella of the MVCA and to allow one of its members to be on a staff committee exploring the lease option.