Sunday, August 14, 2005

NIAGARA FALLS REVIEW AUGUST 6 2005

Niagara Falls Review August 6, 2005

Commissioners for a Day

Public offers ideas on future of parks' properties
BY COREY LAROCQUE Review Staff Writer
NIAGARA FALLS - Fast-food outlets like McDonald's or Tim Horton's could have a future at Niagara Parks Com­mission properties, the old hydro generators near Table Rock could become museums and ice-skating could become
a winter attraction if the com-mission embraces some of the suggestions received through public consultations hold ear­lier this year.
The "Commissioner for a Day" exercise generated a long list of suggestions for business activities and opera­tional changes for the Niagara Parks Commission. During the spring, the parks commis­sion hosted three public meetings, a session with its employees and an Internet forum to get input from peo­ple who live in Niagara Falls, Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the-
Lake about the parks commis­sion's future.
Chairman Jim Williams and consultants from OEB Inter­national presented results at a reception at the Legends on Niagara golf course Thursday.
"It was evident to me, for whatever reason, the parks had drifted away from local, public sentiment," Williams said after the presentation. "This is a way of us getting back to our roots."
This was the first time the parks commission tried the Commissioner for a Day exer­cise, but Williams promised
the commission will continue it in some form. Commission­ers want to "capitalize on the passion" the public has for the parks commission, attrac­tions, property and role, he said.
Results from the 47-page report are also posted on the commission's website.
Throughout the consulta­tion, there was a sense the public would support brand-name restaurants and the commission getting into the business of providing accom­modation as long as it was "tasteful," said John Arm-
strong, the OEB consultant who led the study.
"Boutique hotels" at the Feather in the Glen area or hotels tied in with its golf courses are possibilities, Arm­strong said.
Strong public support exists for the parks commission's mandate to preserve the natu­ral area along the Niagara River and historical attrac­tions, he said. People also support the idea of enhancing a visitor's experience by adding new activities within the park system.


Niagara Falls Review August 6, 2005NPC: Ideas about for parks' future
"Everybody is talking about a winter attraction being ice-skating," Armstrong said.
The study revealed the public was not as aware of the parks commis­sion's mandate to be financially self-sufficient, meaning it doesn't get public funding from any level of government. Its retail stores, attrac­tions and golf courses are the biggest sources of revenue. The commission needs to find ways to generate more revenue, Williams said. He referred to one member of the public whose submission said the parks commission has to carry $20 million in assets that don't gen­erate any revenue.
Changes in the local economy over the past 15 years mean there's more private-sector competition for the parks commission. That means
the commission may have to start doing some things differently from the way it has in the past.
"When there's the gem of a good idea, the committees will be asked to engage in further due diligence."
Jim Williams
"We have to make hard business choices. A lot of those choices come at some expense," Williams said.
The commission is about to begin a three-year business plan. All the input received through the Com­missioner for a Day program will be considered by committees.
"When there's the gem of a good Idea, the committees will be asked to engage in further due diligence," Williams said.
Any ideas they decide to pursue will mature at different paces. Brin­ing in brand-name foods could hap­pen quickly. Others like refurbishing the Toronto Power Co. or Canadian Niagara Power generators for public use could take up to seven years to develop.
"Just think of the potential uses for these two stately buildings," Williams said, noting suggestions for the 100-year-old structures included a hydro museum, visitors centre or condominiums.Results from the Niagara Parks Commis­sion's "Commissioner for a Day" consul­tation are available online at
www.niagaraparks.com


Niagara Falls Review August 6, 2005
NPC's future? Simple, successful

It's not just a muggy week of 30 C heat that makes the thought of gliding across the glass-hard ice of an outdoor rink so appealing. Public skat­ing in Queen Victoria Park is beautiful in its simplicity. It's hard to believe the Niagara Parks Commission hasn't con­sidered it before.
Skating was among the many good ideas that came out of the Commis­sioner for a Day exercise. Over the spring the Niagara Parks Commission asked residents of Niagara Falls, Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the-Lake to think like a commissioner. Whoever came up with the ice-skating idea should be made a commissioner for life.
It's hardly rocket science, but the final report released Thursday confirmed Nia-gara residents feels the Parks Commission plays a special rote. They want it to remain "unique and genuine."
Skating would fit perfectly with the Niagara Parks Commission's mandate to preserve the area along the Niagara River, to enhance visitors' experiences and to remain financially self-sufficient.
Building an outdoor rink somewhere in the park wouldn't be much of intru­sion into the natural setting. Charging people $5 to rent skates and another $5 to hit the ice could be a gold mine.
Tie it in with the Winter Festival of Lights and it's an obvious way to extend the length of time tourists stay here, something the tourism industry is always trying to do.
Outdoor skating is enormously popu­lar on Ottawa's Rideau Canal, which
was recently certified by Guinness as the world's longest outdoor rink. It attracts a million visits a year despite the fact Ottawa winters are vile and bit­terly cold.
Other cities also benefit from the pop­ularity of outdoor rinks like Toronto's Nathan Phillips Square and New York's Central Park and Rockefeller Centre.
It feels like the Commissioner for a Day exercise was a turning point for the parks commission, which has had a rough couple of years, especially in the way it is seen by Niagara residents.
The commission's image was bruised last year with the now-infamous aborted gondola. They're still battling the perception they spent too much on the Legends on the Niagara golf course, though the report states Legends gener­ated a profit in 2004.
Residents who live on the south part of the parks commission's lands have been upset the shoreline has been natu­ralized instead of having the neatly manicured look to which they are
accustomed.
But the report makes it clear the parks commission is still under intense finan­cial pressure. Competition from private-sector attractions and restaurants mean the commission has to change the way it does some things.
The consultation suggests the public would accept the parks commission get­ting into some purely commercial ven­tures like brand-name restaurants and hotel accommodation as long as it's done tastefully and the revenue sup­ports the core mandate as stewards of the natural area and historic sites.
They've already begun with Pizza Pizza and Yogen Fruz franchises at Table Rock and the Maid of the Mist plazas. Earlier this summer, the parks replaced their no-name pizza cafe with a Pizza Pizza franchise and sales are booming. Families like the familiarity of brand-name restaurants because they know what a meal will cost and their kids will eat it, parks officials say.
Once upon a time, that kind of pri­vate-sector involvement on parks com­mission property was unthinkable. After all, the parks commission was created was to protect the falls from gaudy exploitation by the private sector.
But it's a brave new world in tourism. Niagara residents are beginning to accept the parks commission has to change to survive. The word is in, though. Keeping it simple and staying true to the original mandate is the key to satisfying the parks commission's closest neighbours.


Niagara Falls Review August 6, 2005
Public is best consultant Parks can turn to

With its Commissioner for a Day study and subsequent report, the Niagara Parks Com­mission is showing it wants to stay in touch with the public's feelings about how land around the falls should be cared for.
"It was evident to me, for whatever reason, the parks had drifted away from local public sentiment," NPC chairman Jim Williams told The Review Thursday.
The Commissioner for a Day study - in which the public was asked to offer ideas for business activities and operational changes the parks could become involved in - is a way for the commission to get "back to our roots," he said.
The study, he said, was to "capitalize on the passion" the public has for the parks and the falls area.
Williams and the commission staff know all about that passion.
They felt it rise up around them last year after the parks commission proposed building a gondola ride in the gorge near Table Rock - an ill-conceived plan-scrapped largely as the result of public opposition.
People in Niagara want to like the Niagara Parks Commission, but incidents like that make it difficult.
Judging by some of their suggestions in the study, people appear to realize the commission is a whole dif­ferent animal among private operators in the tourism industry.
Proposals from the public - skating rinks, or small 'boutique'-style hotels appropriately placed on parks properties - show a respect for the falls and recogni-•tion of the commission's need to produce revenue.
The commission is wise to listen. The best
consultant it could turn to for advice is the public itself, and their ideas come free.

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