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Ecosociety Wraps up Second Summer as Innovative Managers of the Kokanee Creek Visitor Centre
The Kokanee Visitor Centre has thrived under the management of the West Kootenay Ecosociety after having been shut down by the provincial government two years ago.
“We did it in traditional Kootenay style, making this work even if the government can’t,” says the Ecosociety’s Suzy Hamilton, reflecting on the past two summers of successful operation.
In 2011, B.C. Parks put the management of the visitor centre up for tender and the Ecosociety was the only taker.
For its first summer (2011) the Ecosociety hired a coordinator, Mel Reasoner, and two part-time naturalists. Then it installed wireless internet, put in a coffee bar, and refurbished the displays and signage.
“The last time it was upgraded was in the 80s,” says Hamilton. “We upgraded the technical aspects and the displays, gave it a new appearance, put a shine on it.”
Hamilton has organized the project as a volunteer for the Ecosociety.
Heart and soul
Even though B.C. Parks was forced to shut the centre down because of cutbacks, it has been supportive of the Ecosociety's initiiative. “Having the help of the Ecosociety has been a great boost to us,” says Hugh Ackroyd of B.C. Parks. “Suzy Hamilton has so much energy. She has put her heart and soul into this, the way she has spearheaded it.”
“We had a good year, everyone was happy, we had lots of volunteers,” says Hamilton about that first summer. “People living in the neighbourhood loved it, loved the idea of it, they didn’t want it to become musty and mouldy. We finished our first year with some money in the bank.”
Celebrating the fish
For the summer of 2012, the centre hired two summer students and full-time naturalist Olivia Van Jarrett, and upgraded their programs and facilities further, creating “a great mix of theatre, environment, science, fun, and learning.”
Hamilton estimates the centre had more than 15,000 visitors to all programs this past summer.
“We decided to start celebrating return of the fish,” says Hamilton, “so we organized the Redfish Festival. We had live music, we had naturalist tours every half hour, and the fish came in droves. Thank you, fish. It was a spectacular success.
“We found that people really want to learn about the fish. So this festival is a keeper. Tourists and locals both loved it. They went away realizing how important conservation of habitat is so fish can keep coming.”
Setting the record straight about privatization
Suzy Hamilton says the government contracting the Visitor Centre to the Ecosociety is not privatization.
“At a meeting in which B.C. Parks was touring the province,” she says, “getting feedback from park volunteers and groups such as Friends of West Kootenay Parks, the Kokanee Visitor Centre was praised for its innovative approach on how we kept the centre open.
“Someone at the table mentioned that there was a downside to this success: government would want to privatize all the interpretative centres. So I set the record straight by pointing out this was not a privatization. Without a non-profit like the EcoSociety, and community funders such as the Columbia Basin Trust and the Regional District of Central Kootenay this would not have been possible, along with incredible support from (the Friends of West Kootenay Parks and) some Nelson businesses such as Oso Negro, Otter Books and Phoenix Computers.
“So privatization in the strict sense is not the answer. It would probably be impossible to make it as a private enterprise.”
The project also received funding from the B.C. Conservation Foundation and assistance from the Friends of Kootenay Parks.
A new conference venue
The summer of 2012 saw other improvements. “B.C. Parks bought us a flat screen TV so we could watch the osprey webcam. People loved that. Touchstones loaned us First Nations materials so campers could get a sense of the First Nation presence here.”
The Centre also bought an LCD projector and they have started renting the centre out for conferences—one more step toward financial self-sufficiency. “We have not done a wedding yet,” says Hamilton, “but we are hoping.”
Fun and education
Hamilton says this year’s success comes from looking at the centre as a hub where visitors and locals can come to do a variety of things: get out of the sun, use the bathroom, have a coffee, or let the kids go to Jerry’s Rangers for fun and stickers. Visitors can spend time in the display area learning about wildlife and ecology. On Tuesday nights there are science talks on such topics as climate change, bears, geology, wildfires, and mining history, given by local scientific experts drawn to the centre by coordinator Mel Reasoner, a PhD scientist himself.
Storytellers, yoga, and a popcorn maker
Kids can attend a session with artist Romany Watt, making their own nature journal and learning how to observe and draw the world around them. On Saturday nights there are storytellers—a program brought to the centre by storyteller Barry Gray. They can go to yoga in the mornings, or to a weekly Hootenanny, or to movie night (“We bought a popcorn maker,” says Hamilton).
The 2012 season at the Kokanee Visitor Centre having just ended, Hamilton expects more improvements next summer. “The first year we set the bar, the next year we raised it, and we hope to continue that pattern. It is too beautiful to let it go.”