Design chosen for contentious Waterton visitor centre

Parks Canada has selected a design for a planned visitor centre in Waterton Lakes National Park, despite strong opposition to the project.

Residents concerned over site chosen for project

A rendering shows the 'Town Plaza' design of the planned Waterton Lakes National Park visitor centre. (Parks Canada)

Parks Canada has selected a design for a planned visitor centre in Waterton Lakes National Park, despite strong opposition to the project.

The chosen design was one of three options that was presented to the public during a six-week consultation period.

The new building, which will be located on a field that's currently dedicated to recreational facilities for the town, will feature a central plaza, main building, administration building and public washrooms — all joined by an overhanging roof canopy.

Renderings show the proposed design for the new Waterton visitor centre. (Parks Canada)

The project uses natural materials and has large windows to reflect the views of the surrounding park. 

It will also have a new "natural" playground to replace the current one on site (the current playground will be relocated to an old school ground) and an outdoor theatre space. 

Parks Canada says it will be working with Indigenous partners to develop interpretive material and programming for visitors that reflects Blackfoot history, traditions, culture and contributions to the area.

Plans have been in place to replace the parks 60-year-old visitor centre since 2015 when the government announced $7.6 million in funding for the project.

The old centre was then severely damaged by the Kenow wildfire in September 2017.

The Waterton Lakes National Park visitor's centre pictured before and after it was ravaged by the raging Kenow wildfire. (Left: Bryan Labby; Right: Wes Dewsbery)

Parks Canada has said the new centre is needed to service the over 400,000 visitors that visit Waterton each year.

Local residents and business owners formed an advocacy group to contest the site Parks Canada chose for the new building.

Members of the "Save the Waterton Field" group say the new site will increase traffic and decrease available parking within the town.

The old visitor's centre was located near the entrance to the park.

Parks Canada published the results of the online public consultation sessions. Comments slamming the choice of location greatly outnumbered comments addressing the design of the centre itself.

"I can't support any design until the issue of the location is addressed. Most people don't want it in the townsite. If that's not clear, you're just not listening," wrote one respondent. 

Others pointed out that the proposed designs seemed to suggest that visitors would have spectacular views of the lake, despite the fact that those views would be blocked by nearby two-storey cabins.

Some opponents seemed concerned with increasing tourism to the area: "Do NOT build a visitor's centre, which will only encourage more people to visit Waterton, which will spoil its uniqueness."

Construction on the new centre is set to begin this year.