Heritage Ranch is perilously close to becoming a little-used but often-debated money pit.
Neither Red Deer citizens nor city council want that, of course, but a series of missteps related to this isolated park on the western edge of the city have brought us no closer to a facility that is either accessible or offers a concept attractive enough to generate more than marginal traffic.
This week, council agreed to increase the annual subsidy for operators of the park by $110,000, for a total of $170,000. This is seen as a short-term remedy, while planned upgrades and additions are made in order to attract patrons.
The upgrades would do much to improve access to the park, and give it greater diversity. They would include better signage, a new playground, overnight camping for children’s groups and expansion and improvements to the visitor centre.
But at the core, Heritage Ranch would remain an equestrian-themed park.
It’s a theme that seems to resonate less with Red Deerians over time and doesn’t seem to be enticing out-of-town visitors in any great numbers, either. The rural roots of this park simply do not attract streams of users.
City Councillor Lorna Watkinson-Zimmer challenged citizens this week to justify council’s investment in the park by using it more. Given the history of the park, her challenge is reasonable, even if it is likely to fall on deaf ears.
In 2005, the city commissioned ISL Consulting of Edmonton to examine the park as part of its Special Gathering Places report, which reviewed the city’s core park areas and made proposals for changes to enhance their public use and enjoyment. ISL proposed turning Heritage Ranch into an ecological centre and phasing out the under-used equestrian features. The proposal made sense, given the seclusion of the park, its existing natural areas, and a growing public interest in the natural world and its preservation.
But the proposed changes were attacked by supporters of the ranch/park concept and 11,000 people signed a petition in protest. Council backed away from the proposal for an ecological centre as a result and instead city parks officials offered a retooled plan that includes upgrades based on the current theme.
Late last year, as council was projecting costs for its 10-year plan to upgrade the park, it put capital expenses at $4.4 million, including upgrading utilities to the nearby Alberta Sports Hall of Fame/Tourism Red Deer visitor centre.
The approved plan certainly has some lasting value. It includes proposals for better access for pedestrians and vehicles to the park. That is essential, given the park’s location and the roadblocks that face visitors.
Getting to the park from Hwy 2 is difficult. It could, in fact, be a gateway to the city for visitors if signs were improved as proposed, and parking and access were retooled. Visitors to Tourism Red Deer’s centre continue to increase; last year, a record 77,749 people stopped at the site for information. But the park, directly adjacent to the tourism centre, has never been presented as a welcoming venue to those potential visitors.
Access issues also exist for city residents who want to get to the park — it requires driving through residential areas. Increased traffic, given the current roadways, will only draw the ire of local residents, so any plans to improve the popularity of the park will need to require traffic alternatives.
And, as users sometimes discover from the wrong side, the gates are locked at the park while the sun is still up, raising questions about just how public a facility it really is.
A responsive city government listens to the public and shapes community needs to suit that public. But it would be wise for the city to renovate the park in a way that allows for simple closure of the stables if public support doesn’t increase. Sometimes loud protest — even from 11,000 voices — doesn’t translate into actual public will.
It just amounts to costly attempts to keep everyone happy.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.