Lack of extra funds will 'devastate' Heritage Park, forcing it to close exhibits and lay off staff, CEO warns

The CEO of Heritage Park told a city council committee on Monday it needs help or it will be closing down some of its exhibits and laying off more staff.

Loss of paddlewheeler this year is latest financial challenge for Calgary attraction

Heritage Park's CEO told Calgary's city council that the attraction will likely be posting a deficit. (Stacee Barton/CBC)

The CEO of Heritage Park told a Calgary city council committee Monday that it needs help or it will be closing down some of its exhibits and laying off more staff.

Alida Visbach told the committee that for the first time in its 54-year history, Heritage Park is looking at posting deficits.

She asked council for additional money to keep them going because a status-quo grant of $3.1 million or a reduction would see the attraction fall even further into trouble.

"Without being overly dramatic, it would devastate Heritage Park, considering what we've already dealt with," said Visbach.

She said their bottom line is missing $1.3 million in anticipated revenues this year through a variety of unbudgeted costs and reduced revenues.

The costs include increases in the minimum wage, covering carbon tax charges, and lost corporate sponsorships.

No paddlewheeler this year has hurt

But not having the SS Moyie paddlewheeler as a key attraction has cost Heritage Park both with daily visitors and with regular supporters.

Visbach said nearly half of visitors to the historic attraction — which boasts of being Canada's largest living history museum — come for a trip on the Glenmore Reservoir.

However, this year the boat is in dry dock because reservoir levels have been lowered to allow work to be done to the Glenmore Dam.

She estimates that has cost an additional $643,570 in lost revenues.

"One of our major attractions, something that draws people in, is no longer available, so people make a decision around that when they buy their annual passes," said Visbach.

Annual pass sales are down 23 per cent this year below expectations.

Adding insult to injury, some upgrades were done to the Moyie but it's not known when it will get back on the water.

The dock for the boat was put in place after an older one was damaged by the 2013 flood.

But the new dock was damaged when water in the reservoir was lowered this year and it's unusable with the higher levels that are anticipated when new gates on the dam are operational.

Heritage Park has also asked the city to fund a new dock.

Councillor sees need for more cash

Coun. Jeromy Farkas said he has a great deal of sympathy for Heritage Park's plight and he supports additional money for the civic partner.

He said much of these additional costs have been downloaded onto Heritage Park by the provincial government.

"The value for money is definitely there and what I see from Heritage Park is a real eagerness to show how they are able and willing to reduce costs," said Farkas.

Visbach said they have laid off staff, left vacant jobs unfilled and done what they can to reduce their carbon footprint.

She told the committee that their use of fuels like diesel, natural gas and gasoline are down 18 per cent and electricity usage is down 12 per cent.

Deficits could accelerate problems

Besides running a projected deficit of nearly $400,000 next year and half-a-million-dollar shortfalls in each of the following three years, Visbach said going into the red poses an ongoing threat to their operations.

In the past, Heritage Park put annual surpluses into a capital fund to help pay for the upkeep of the park and development of new exhibits.

Without a surplus, she said it imperils that work.

Unless more money can be found, she told the committee their sole focus for now is finding a way to keep the doors open. 

Administration is still putting together the city's upcoming four year budget.

The spending plan will be unveiled in November and be finalized by city council during its budget debate later that month.