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Campground closure hurting Jasper's economy, business owners say

In November, Jasper's largest campground closed for major renovations. But as Whistlers Campground sits empty into June, the lack of progress has some businesses concerned for the project’s timeline and what it could mean for the local economy.

‘It’s embarrassing that Parks Canada has handled it in the manner that it has’

Whistlers Campground in Jasper closed for major renovations in November. (Kim Stark)

Whistlers Campground in Jasper has hummed with the activity of campers from both near and far for more than 50 years.

But this year, Jasper National Park 's largest campground is empty of those usual tents, RVs, and people. Its 781 campsites — more than 40 per cent of those listed for Jasper on Parks Canada's website — are empty.

The campground has been closed since November due to a major renovation project promising a registration centre, new washroom and shower facilities, improved campsites, wider roads and upgraded water, sewer and electrical systems.

Some businesses in Jasper have expressed concern for the project's timeline and what it could mean for the local economy.

Kim Stark, owner of the Bear's Paw Bakery and The Other Paw Bakery Cafe in Jasper, said she has seen business drop by 13 to 20 per cent year over year. 

"That is quite concerning, especially considering that in Jasper we have a very, very short season of busyness," Stark said.

She also expressed concern for the renovation timeline, saying that she's noticed fewer visitors around town. 

"I think that by closing a campground that has this much of an impact, not only for the business community but for the international and regional visitors to the area, is irresponsible and it's embarrassing that Parks Canada has handled it in the manner that it has," Stark said.

Although the campground has been closed since November, residents say they've seen little construction work done beyond initial clearing. (Kim Stark)

Richard Cooper, president of the Jasper Park Chamber of Commerce, said that in a meeting with a Parks Canada representative last week, he was told work was on schedule and would be completed by next summer, although no exact date had yet been determined.

When asked by CBC News if the campground would be open by next season, Parks Canada did not provide information regarding the project's timeline.

"Parks Canada is working with Public Services and Procurement Canada to ensure a fair, open and transparent solicitation process for the construction contract for upgrades to Whistlers campground in Jasper National Park," wrote spokesperson Steve Young in an emailed statement.

"The Government of Canada is exercising due diligence to ensure this contract results in the best value for Canadians," he said.

The construction contract tender posted online has expired.

According to Young, Parks Canada first announced the renovation plans in 2015 and had been engaged in ongoing discussions with businesses, including an open house in spring 2018.

Built in the 1960s, Whistlers Campground features a four-kilometre ring road with 19 access loop roads.

According to its website, it is Parks Canada's largest campground and the largest single-entry campground in North America.

Businesses making adjustments

Despite the closure, Young said Jasper had more than 200,000 visitors in May, a 2.9 per cent increase over 2018 and the highest for that month this decade.

But Stark said those numbers don't necessarily translate to business and some visitors choose to stay in nearby communities like Hinton. 

"What I can say is that just because people are passing through the park doesn't mean they're stopping in the town," she said.

Some Jasper businesses have made adjustments to mitigate potential losses, including hiring fewer seasonal staff and buying less inventory.

Ray Robinson, one of the owners of the Robinsons grocery store, said he planned to hire fewer workers than usual this year. 

He said his store saw business decrease between five to seven per cent last month compared to previous years but noted June has "so far held steady."

"I don't know what to expect for July and August," he added.

Robinson said given the lack of activity on the campground site, there's fear construction could last into next summer.

"I have a grocery store so I'll survive but some of the smaller gift stores … are going to be in tough shape if they don't have those numbers to rely on for next year too," he said.

"This year's going to be hard enough for them."

With files from Emily Rendell-Watson

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