Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The story behind Storybook Gardens (not suitable for children)

Following disclosure of annual operating deficits of more than 10 per cent of revenue at London's Storybook Gardens and over $1 million in losses since a $7 million infusion of taxpayer funds into the park in 2003, Council this past February directed its Community and Protective Services Committee to hold a public consultation on the attraction's future. Whether the purpose of the exercise was to postpone interest in Council's chronic indecision or to postpone the indecision itself, the consultation attracted the submissions of only 21 Londoners out of a population of 350,000 — a response that would seem to be proportional to attendance at Storybook Gardens, which has seen a drop from over 290,000 in the summer of 1976 to just over 122,000 in all of last year despite year-round opening since the 2003 effort to turn the park into a "tourist destination." The term "attraction" clearly ought to be used lightly of a facility that receives an average of just 300 visitors a day, 70 per cent of whom are London residents rather than tourists.

The framework for last night's consultation (PDF) was provided by two options identified by City Staff:

  1. A Year Round Operation which takes advantage of the prior investment in and artificial ice skating trail and recognizes:
    • The site operates on a breakeven or better basis in the summer
    • Winter programming does not, nor will it, pay for itself
    • Annual operating deficits of $202,000 in 2008, $147,000 in 2009 and
      $95,000 in 2010 are required

  2. A Seasonal Operation which closes for the winter months and recognizes:
    • Not taking advantage of the prior capital investment in the artificial ice skating trail.
    • Elimination of winter programming opportunities.
    • Annual Operating deficits of $195,000 in 2008, $65,000 in 2009 and
      $2,500 in 2010 are required.
We should expect that similarly optimistic projections were just as much a part of the expectant business proposals in 2003, and it should be noted that either option will require an infusion of capital spending of about $500,000 over two years to come from a reserve fund that will cost taxpayers $110,000 this year in contributions and will likely cost taxpayers even more in future years to restore the fund from the projected drawdowns.

But even the inescapable and necessary conclusion that winter opening at Storybook Gardens "does not, nor will it, pay for itself" and presents a "real barrier to reducing the deficit" failed to deter almost every one of the submissions from endorsing the Year Round Operation — in each case entirely on the grounds that the applicants themselves were members of that very small minority of Londoners who enjoyed the heavily subsidized winter entertainment. Indeed, the Tiba family of London (p. 251) expressed their "insatisfaction" [sic] with insufficient operating hours at Storybook Gardens! (One notable exception was the communication of Dawn Willoughby (p. 238), who preferred the Seasonal Operation "as it makes the most economic sense" but who also disapproved of the popular nostalgia-driven idea of returning the park to its old storybook character theme because "[a]s a parent I find most [nursery rhymes] to be scary, violent and/or inappropriate and have no interest in teaching them to my children.")

To say nothing of any actual discussion, it turned out that even the barest mention of the economic merits or flaws of either of Staff's two options during the hearing was entirely preempted by the narrow self-interested concerns of every one of the public applicants, in unwitting correspondence with the sentiments of Harry Joosten who, as a member of the Storybook Gardens advisory group, admonished the Committee that it would be "unfair to cast the landmark in financial terms."

"It is not a commercial entertainment facility," Joosten continued, entirely missing the point that — whatever sentimental attachments Londoners may have formed to the idea of Storybook Gardens in the absence of any physical presence — the park is exactly a commercial entertainment facility in the most important sense, that it must either make money by attracting visitors or lose it by attracting indifference, the only difference being that the investment risks are covered by the indifference of the taxpayer. Whether publicly or privately owned, operation of a theme park must meet the essential condition of being an attractive destination for people, of which revenues against costs are the only objective measurement. Further submissions to the Committee by environmental groups like Friends of Captive Animals and the local chapter of the Council of Canadians promoting the idea of turning Storybook Gardens into an environmentally sustainable "post-carbon" eco-Potemkin-village for educational purposes (pp. 216-230, 242-247, 253-258) would obviously fail the simple test of whether anyone would be willing to build it with their own money in the expectation of a natural profit on the simple grounds that no one has ever done so — notwithstanding the expectation of artificial profit when teachers drag in busloads of schoolchildren to educate them in "a profound act of social healing and justice" and an even more profound state of boredom, a case of tax expenditures in one place being used to subsidize tax expenditures in another in any event.

It should come as no surprise to Londoners who opt to spend their time and money at other locations that City Staff in fact identifies a relative inability to compete with privately run attractions as one of the park's principle liabilities in trying to break even. Operations of Storybook Gardens having already been built and re-built upon political premises instead of upon market rules, the City's political management has clearly failed to show any aptitude for delivering cost-effective or even desirable entertainment facilities to Londoners — and there should be no reason to expect that another re-building on those same lines will produce any better results.

The simple and obvious conclusion is that the City has no business or interest at all running Storybook Gardens in the first place, and there are no tangible benefits to Londoners to be discovered from public ownership of these kinds of entertainment resources except for the decidedly weak value of a sentiment that appears to be rarely held in any case, judging by attendance both at the park and at the public consultation into its future. We must take the risk of repeating, however much that the City should not wish to hear it, that the equally simple and obvious solution would be for the City to get out of the business altogether and sell Storybook Gardens. A sale of prime riverfront property and the park's assets would in fact likely recoup all and more of taxpayers' investments in Storybook Gardens, and could substantially reduce the $50 million per annum cost to taxpayers of the City's $350 million debt. At the least it would certainly cost taxpayers no more than further political mismanagement could possibly do, and would actually create revenue in the form of property taxes.

We should also remind Londoners again that Storybook Gardens is currently a liability to them — a sale would not only remove that liability, but would present the chance to make Storybook Gardens an attraction to Londoners once again by putting it in the hands of people whose genuine interest would be in creating demand.

3 comments:

mariposa said...

Nursery rhymes - "scary, violent" - what???

Now Grimm's fairy tales (not the Disney, watered-down feel good verions) - those were scary and violent (and warped child that I was, I loved them).

Let's see...
Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white as snow, and everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.

Wow, yes, I see it now. That was scary - that lamb was stalking her!

mariposa said...

Anyway...

The people running stuff like Storybook Gardens and Fanshawe Pioneer Village have zero business sense period!

e.g. at Fanshawe Pioneer Village: someone I know went to their gift shop years ago to try to wholesale souvenir items to them. They were willing to take them, on consignment, which was fine with him. The only thing he requested was a PST exemption from them, so that when he billed them for items sold, he wouldn't charge them PST (this is basic tax rule stuff). The woman in charge (same one running the place today) had no clue what he was talking about - she had never heard of such a thing. She said "No, you give me your tax number."

Like I said, no clue, no business sense - period. Needless to say, he refused to deal with them.

It appears Storybook isn't run any better. Because tax dollars fund it, those in charge have little motivation to make it viable (especially since this city seems to like throwing more tax dollars at losing propositions).

mariposa said...

More scary and degrading nursery rhymes:

Georgie Porgie pudding and pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.

This is obvious sexual harassment! The horror, the horror!

Actually I know a bisexual version that would maybe be considered more PC today...

The last two lines go:
When the boys came passing through,
Georgie Porgie kissed them too.