Monday, November 14, 2005

The community gathered in the public square

Although Londoners are threatened with yet another tax increase this year by the city, currently reporting a surplus, worthless relics and state amusement zones continue to receive millions of taxpayer dollars. The startling fact that most people are not interested in going to Fanshawe Pioneer Village nor Storybook Gardens matters not at all to council. The collective roar of The People is the determining factor. The other members of the consortium will just have to wait until next year.

The Dead awaken

Less than a year after threatening to close, London's Fanshawe Pioneer Village appears to be on the rebound -- even before it launches a major fundraising campaign.

There have been no big announcements, no loud donations, yet a citywide effort to restore London's Fanshawe Pioneer Village is getting kudos from city hall.

[..] To date, the village has:

- Revamped and reorganized its board of directors.

- Found private donors to repair two of the 30 buildings on site (Miller House and Trinity Anglican Church) and start work on a third, the boyhood home of historian Wilfrid Jury, whose gift of 6,000 native and early settler artifacts was the foundation of the village.

- Raised tens of thousands of dollars in donations to pay for a feasibility study and a consultant to plan and launch the fundraising drive.

- Convinced a leading donor to commit an undisclosed sum.

- Drafted leading developers Helen and Andy Spriet as honorary chairpersons of the fundraising effort.

"We hope to make some significant announcements early in the new year," said village executive director Sheila Johnson. "I'm feeling very confident. The community has really stepped forward and said this village is important."

Population of London Ontario, 2005: approximately 360,000. Number of visitors to Fanshawe Pioneer Village annually: around 28,000, including 10,000 students forced to attend with their class.

Cost to greedy, self-centered Londoners:
- A five-year effort to raise $2 million, including $1.5 million for repairs and $500,000 to double the village's endowment fund.

- A second campaign after 2010 to raise another $1 million for a new visitor and curatorial centre.

Council agreed to provide operating funds of $300,000 this year, $350,000 next year and, tentatively, each year after, with a goal of reducing the city's contribution to its operating budget from 50 per cent to 43 per cent by 2010.

"We said, 'You come back and show us you can do this' and they're doing it. It's great," said Controller Bud Polhill.

Meanwhile, Andy Spriet said he's confident of a successful fundraising effort.

"I think it'll get done," Spriet said. "It's a good institution for this city."

But what about the children?
London's Storybook Gardens is bleeding cash, despite a $7-million facelift two years ago to revitalize the park.

Low attendance -- brought on by a combination of bad weather, labour strife at schools and declining numbers of children -- left the theme park with consecutive losses this year and last totalling $457,000.

[..] Attendance this year is expected to hit only 103,321 -- far short of the 192,700 projected in the original business plan and down sharply from last year when Storybook Gardens had 133,732 visitors.

In a report headed to city council's community and protective services committee today, city staff say a new business plan being implemented will get the theme park in the black.

"I'm confident we can do it," said Janie Romoff, director of parks and recreation.

"We're very happy with the (revamped) facilities and even though we've not achieved our original business projections, we're still serving more than 100,000 Londoners annually and it's still a significant attraction Londoners enjoy and have come to rely on."

Staff blame wet weather for low attendance in 2004 followed by hot, humid weather last summer that kept visitors away.

Also, they say May and June attendance was down 30 per cent because of a work-to-rule campaign by teachers that kept school groups away.

[..] Another factor, the report cites, is demographics. School boards have seen declining enrolments the last few years, which means the park's "target market" of school-age children has diminished.
As Storybook Gardens and Pioneer Village have a similar target group - mainly children enrolled in state schools - one would expect that many of the reasons put forth to explain the decrease in attendance at Storybook Gardens would indicate that Pioneer Village also experienced fewer visitors and hence, less revenue.

But who cares, as council is there to help:
Revenue this year was expected to hit $1.42 million, but is now expected to hit just $952,000, leaving a shortfall of $340,000, which includes $114,000 that was supposed go into a capital reserve fund for future upgrades.

Staff say surpluses in other departments will provide enough money to put into reserves.

The new business plan, to be fully implemented next year, includes:

- increased marketing

- new features, such as the toddler pirate ship

- new animals (lynx kittens, skunk and beaver)

- revised operating hours to match visitation patterns

- development of new educational programs to generate more group bookings.
More buildings and more features equals greater cost each year to Londoners. And they shouldn't have built the JLC either, but they did, and now taxpayers are stuck with the bill.

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