Leaf entry fees have deep roots – Winnipeg Free Press
The recent announcement that visiting Assiniboine Park’s newest facility, the Leaf, will cost a family of four $48. This is the first time in the history of the park that an entrance fee will be charged to citizens to enjoy an indoor garden experience.
The Old Palm House, built in 1913, and the Old Conservatory, built in 1969, have provided over a century of public enjoyment without charging admission.
Why the change now? How is it that this new facility, built largely with public funds, will not be accessible to many citizens living on fixed incomes?
The decision was announced by the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, the entity that has managed the park since 2008. It operates under the governance structure imposed by a former city council, which includes less public funding and more requirements for conservation to be self-sustaining. when it comes to managing our city’s flagship park.
Historically, the mandate established by the city’s parks board was that the park be free to all citizens. A recent book about the park cites the council’s 1921 warrant, which stated that the park should be “…undisturbed by profit-making amusements, a sanctuary where the public enjoyed the fresh air in idyllic surroundings” .
The visionary leadership of Parks Board Chairman George Champion, who chaired Winnipeg Parks for 26 years, was opposed to commercial entities in Winnipeg Parks. He wanted Assiniboine Park — and indeed all parks — to be open to all citizens to enjoy these public spaces.
This week, a spokesperson for the reserve said only 40% of Leaf’s operating costs will be covered by the city. The remaining operating costs are to be covered by “Admission, Memberships, School Programs, Restaurant and Special Operations, Special Events, and Rentals.”
The seeds for this radical change in the operation of our city’s most important park were sown 25 years ago.
Former mayor Susan Thompson and a majority of city council hired George Cuff, a consultant from Alberta. They adopted his sweeping plan to merge departments, do away with the Board of Commissioners and introduce a new senior management governance model.
One of the casualties was the city’s parks and recreation department. Park maintenance functions, including forestry services, were transferred to the Public Works Department. For the first time in the city’s history, there was no department head responsible specifically for parks.
Today, parks and tree services compete for budget money with demands for street and sidewalk renewals. As most citizens know, parks and trees have done poorly in this competition, to the point that today we cannot even remove diseased trees in a timely manner, much less replace them.
The story is the same with recreation programs. Our summer paddling pools are less open than before and recreation programs have been reduced.
While some may point to the Assiniboine Park Conservancy as being responsible for the Leaf’s high admission fees, such a view misses the real facts of parks and recreation services in Winnipeg.
Since 1997, Winnipeg City Council has withdrawn from the proper management of parks and recreation functions. The city council’s creation of the conservation model was a horrible decision, which resulted in a stake in the integrated regional parks model built by George Champion.
In addition to creating the reserve, former Mayor Sam Katz’s city council also imposed budget cuts on Assiniboine Park. We are now being asked to accept the gate user fees of our most recent park amenity as inevitable and irreversible.
As a city councilor, Glen Murray (correctly, in my opinion) opposed the Cuff report; he and a minority of the 1997 council did not want the Department of Parks and Recreation eliminated.
The Leaf’s projected admission fees will prevent many citizens and their families from enjoying this new facility, for which taxpayers have largely paid. The notion of “free” vouchers for those who cannot afford admission fees is, quite frankly, both embarrassing and offensive.
The current municipal election provides the perfect opportunity to debate the kind of city we all want for the future. What kind of vision will guide the operation of our services in the parks? I am sure that citizens would welcome this debate and would certainly benefit from hearing the candidates’ positions on the issue before voting on October 26.
Paul Moist is a former labor leader and research associate at the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives – Manitoba.