Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat latest northern Ontario tourist attraction to hit hard times
Shania Twain Centre closed in 2013, Hockey Heritage North no longer a museum
Town council in Cochrane is set to vote Tuesday night on the future of the financially-troubled polar bear habitat.
It opened 15 years ago, one of a series of northern Ontario tourist attractions that have struggled to stay afloat.
Shania Twain Centre in Timmins and Hockey Heritage North in Kirkland Lake are among the other multi-million dollar tourism anchors that didn't pan out as planned.
"When you're in the process you think, 'Yeah, this makes a lot of sense. And we've got people telling us this can work, this can work,'" says Karen Bachmann, the long-time director and curator of the Timmins Museum.
"It's unfortunate that as you drive through these projects, the realization comes really quick and really hard and really fast."
She says that under the provincial government's Northern Ontario Tourism Partnership program in the late 1990s and early 2000s, millions of dollars in capital funding for construction was available, but then municipalities and citizen groups were left to operate the attractions on their own.
"The capital flows nicely, but then once the buildings are built, the reality sets in," says Bachmann.
The $10 million Shania Twain Centre opened in 2001 with the hope of attracting 50,000 paying customers per year.
But it never drew more than 15,000, and was forced to start hosting parties and other events to make ends meet. Timmins taxpayers ended up spending around $300,000 per year to keep the centre open.
In 2013, the city sold it for $5 million to Goldcorp, which demolished the 12-year-old building to make way for a new open pit gold mine.
"Ambitious, and what the heck, we gotta try something, so let's try this. And you get what you get," says Bachmann.
Hockey Heritage North opened in Kirkland Lake in 2006 as an $8 million museum celebrating northern Ontario's rich hockey history.
"There's no use to putting up the Taj Mahal when it's empty," says Kirkland Lake Mayor Pat Kiely.
It too struggled to meet expectations, and now the hockey memorabilia has been stashed away and the re-branded Heritage North hosts weddings, miner training sessions and everything in between.
"Sometimes these magic plans that come up, that's what they are: magic," Kiely says.
"The consultant can make a plan look pretty good, but they're sometimes not realistic in today's day and age, and I think that's basically what happened."
The Town of Kirkland Lake recently paid off the mortgage on Heritage North, so that annual $250,000 payment is off the books, but the taxpayers are still covering an annual operating loss at the centre of $150,000, with a long-term goal of breaking even.
Science North in Sudbury is one of the only attractions in the region to receive regular funding, with the $8 million or so in government grants making up more than half of the annual budget.
Some museums also receive provincial operating funding, including the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, which gets 5 per cent of its budget or $48,000 from Queen's Park.
Executive director Dan Ingram says they've increasingly had to rely on city taxpayers, with Sault Ste. Marie city council now contributing $175,000 every year.
He says the museum has survived by focusing on hosting a range of different events, from funerals to beer festivals.
"About seven, eight years ago half the board meeting was spent on whether or not they could pay the bills," says Ingram.
The Elk Lake Eco Centre opened in 2001 in the small town of 400 people, with the goal of being a conference and education centre for the forest industry.
But the wood business hit a major slump shortly after that and the centre closed its doors for about a year around 2005.
General manager Rick Guthrie says the Eco Centre is now on better financial footing and its $330,000 payroll is the second largest in Elk Lake after the local sawmill, and is vital to the economy of the small town.
"If we went away, it would definitely be felt. In a lot of small towns, they're barely holding onto their liquor stores and post offices and they're starting to vanish," says Guthrie.
He says while it's easy to look back at failed projects and scold government for investing millions of public dollars in the past, he says it's sometimes worth taking a chance.
"I think it would be very difficult to predict if we should invest in something like this or not," Guthrie says.