Monday, August 30, 2004

Gondola letter

Mr. John Kernahan, General Manager

Mr. Jim Williams, Chairman

June 23, 2004

Gentlemen,

THE NIAGARA PARKS COMMISSION SHOULD BE FINANCIALLY SELF SUPPORTING.

AS FAR AS POSSIBLE THE NIAGARA PARKS COMMISSION SHOULD BE FREE TO THE PUBLIC. These are the founding principles of The Niagara Parks Commission.

During the unveiling and information session for the new Gondola ride there was plenty of information presented about how the NPC is self-supporting and how the NPC does not receive any outside funding. However, I did not hear anything about the second principle, and after speaking with others that attended our meeting and others that attended other meetings, no one could recall any mention of it. I did read it in your June 22 NEWSLINE but it is somewhat disturbing that so much emphasis was put on the first principle and little or none on the second principle. Is it possible the Niagara Parks Commission is moving away from the second principle?

“Moving Forward
”, is necessary for growth, and I believe it is necessary to spend money to make money.
However there is one element that must be considered before any endeavor is to be put forth, and that element is timing. I’m sure you have all heard the term “timing is everything”, and that is very true especially when it applies to large financial projects.

I would like to step back for a moment, back to October 2001. A meeting was called and the majority of the Commission’s employees attended. The meeting took place at the new maintenance center and it was regarding the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
We were told drastic cut backs were necessary because of the economic impact of this attack in the park. Major lay-offs were announced and cut backs to projects took place. A week later the staff still very upset with the announcement of the early and extensive lay-offs was invited to attend a tour of Legends on the Niagara Golf course and Club House. On the day of the tour People movers full of employees arrived at The Legends on the Niagara location passing by the on going work around the Club House being done by Stevensville Lawn care/nurseries and Montgomery Brothers. I think this could certainly be considered bad timing both with the tour and the exposure to workers doing work that could have been done by our own employees that had just found out they were being laid off.

On June 22, 2004 the announcement of a Gondola-type attraction that will cost in the area of 23-million dollars running between Table Rock and The Maid of the Mist Complex may also be listed in the “Bad Timing” category.

After a very tough 2003 season due to several factors the Niagara Parks Commission found it necessary to make some drastic changes in its staffing and operations.

From just after Labour Day 2003 every employee in the park was concerned about his or her job and with good reason. Some jobs were made redundant, other full-time jobs were made seasonal, and some full timers found it necessary to use vacation time to get their full 40- hours-per-week. Seasonals were laid off even earlier and called back later, or not called back at all. New equipment and vehicles were put on hold. Morale was at an all time low.

Mixed in with all of this was the negotiation of a new contract between the unionized employees and the Commission. The employees kept hearing the same comments from the Commission, “We have had a bad couple of years and we can not afford to give anymore than what we have offered.”

On May 26, 2004 the unionized employees of the Niagara Parks Commission voted in a new contract. At any time during the negotiations was the 23-million dollar Gondola attraction presented to the union or its negotiating team? The fall-out from the new contract is not even a month old and the announcement that the Commission is borrowing 23-million dollars is presented to its staff. [Bad timing?]

Mr. Williams said, “Employees are important to the park.” It is very hard to get excited about this new attraction knowing that staffing has been cut so deep that full-time jobs in the following departments: Roads, Horticulture, Welding, Masons and Paint/Sign, and probably a few more that I am not aware of have not been filled.
Along with these cutbacks are examples of such limited staffing that seasonal workers are being scheduled to work in two or more sections at a time, e.g., QVP Horticulture staff working part of their shifts in Queenston Heights Park.

It would almost appear that adequate staffing levels, general maintenance, and overall park appearance are now considered liabilities.

With the addition of paid parking in both Kingsbridge Park and the School of Horticulture, the fee to use the picnic pavilions both in Queenston Heights Park and Kingsbridge Park and the transfer of a staff parking lot at the old maintenance center to a paid parking lot for visitors.
Along with the removal of picnic tables in several areas of the park especially in the falls parking lot. I wonder if this is to discourage visitors from picnicking in the park? Or even returning to the park. I’m sure it also encourages a faster turnaround in the parking lots when visitors realize it may not be as comfortable to picnic with out any picnic facilities. These types of changes indicate that the Commission may be putting too much emphasis on the bottom line.
Are other large parking and picnic areas such as Dufferin Islands and Queenston Heights on the way to paid parking.

Mr. Kernahan was very excited about the fact that The Commission will be consolidating its 13-million dollar debt with the 23-million dollar loan for the Gondola and that, “It will be like a mortgage, we will be able to pay it off over a 20 year period”. Mr. Kernahan did mention that no financial support will be drawn from other sources to help pay for this new attraction, “It will be completely self sufficient, all the income that is generated from the Gondola will go directly back into the loan.” I guess the only real difference between your mortgage and my mortgage is, if things do go bad you can draw the money from other sources such as the laying off of staff or the shutting down of attractions; if I can’t make a payment I lose my house.


According to the Niagara Parks Commission none of the restructuring of staff, equipment, maintenance and appearance in the park over the past three years had anything to do with the construction of the golf course. Mr. Kernahan made this point first and foremost during the announcement of the Gondola attraction. However it is somewhat hard to accept as the golf course was under construction when the terrorist attack occurred on September 11, 2001. This attack put a severe strain on income to the Niagara Parks Commission and had to have some impact on all the budgets in the park.

During the Gondola announcement, Mr. Kernahan mentioned that Legends on the Niagara golf complex cost 30-million dollars to build. According to documentation submitted to Niagara Falls Economic Developments the budget was 12-million for the golf course, and 3.3-million for the clubhouse. For a total of 15.3-million dollars. <> If in fact there was a 14.7 million dollar difference in the budgeting of the golf course, I should think that one of two things has to happen: The term of the loan has to be increased so that the income from the course can meet the financial obligation of the loan, or financial support must come from other sources. I have included the documentation from the Niagara Falls Economic website for reference.

I only present this point as a reminder that it’s very hard to recover from an economic breakdown such as 9/11, SARS, etc.

“Due to the very poor 2003 season our 6 million dollar debt has risen to 13 million dollars”,
John Kernahan. When asked about the possibility of another economic crisis Mr. Kernahan replied, “We can never predict the possibility of such things” that is very true, but since we have been through two economic down turns in the past three years you would think that some sort of financial plan would be in place in case this were to happen again as opposed to hoping it won’t happen again.

Mr. Kernahan, Mr. Williams,

I would like to conclude by finishing where I started. Moving forward is a good thing but I hope that this isn’t too much to fast. I still believe it would have been better to clear the 13-million dollar debt and be in a more stable financial position before moving on.

Gentlemen,

I hope you can look at this objectively; this is more a concern than a criticism.


You asked us for our input, this is mine.


Thank you.

Ian Mather

___________

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