Janice Thomson says the Niagara Parks Commission is in good shape for those who now have the responsibility of running it.
She is disappointed the job won’t be hers for the next term, but the overwhelming support — more than 3,000 people for whom she has huge respect have reached out on social media — and their very positive comments about a job well-done far outweigh any letdown she is feeling from the provincial decision to choose a new head for the agency.
As the former chair of the commission, she says the recently-appointed chair and eight new members of the 12-person board have inherited an organization in sound financial condition — with several years behind it of operating with a surplus, and with strong, sound governance policies and procedures to put it in a good position for the future.
This wasn’t always the case.
Thomson was appointed to the board in 2010, at a time when it had been the subject of almost 20 years of critical governance reports and reviews that alleged financial malfeasance and violations of the public trust. A governance audit in 2009 suggested an over-reliance on the old boys’ club for board appointments.
During her eight-and-a-half-year term, the financially self-sustaining organization went from four years of deficits to four years of surpluses to the tune of $17 million, which was used to finance capital maintenance projects that had been deferred. The accumulated surplus will continue to pay for improvements into the future, she said.
When her term ended last fall, the board was one year into a 10-year strategic plan with a mandate of ensuring the 60-kilometre property along the Niagara River “becomes one of the most spectacular parks in the world,” she said.
The goal is not to be on a top-10 list, she added, but to be one of the best in all considerations, with the values of preservation and conservation informing every decision made by the board.
The mandate of cultural and environmental stewardship “controlled every decision we made,” but sometimes it presented a challenge, she added.
As an example, she referred to the decision to allow Nik Wallenda, a professional daredevil, to cross the falls on a high-wire strung from the American side to the Canadian in 2012, with millions of viewers around the world watching.
Stunting is outlawed on parks property without the permission of commissioners, she said, but it was felt Wallenda’s professionalism and the opportunity to highlight the falls, while recognizing its long history of attracting stunters, would be beneficial. The commission devised a way to embrace the walk and the international attention that would be focused on the falls: it decided that once in a generation, it would review the qualifications of a professional, and could choose to permit such a performance.
“It brought so many eyes of the world to the wonder and majesty of the falls,” Thomson said, “and now the policy remains in place to support future considerations.”
The new aerial adventure course and zip-lines presented a similar challenge. The public was clamouring for “soft adventure experiences,” and the attraction was designed with great care to showcase the beauty of the Niagara River gorge and rapids, Thomson said.
That decision, she added, highlighted the exceptional makeup of the board, with people who were thoughtful and deeply considerate of the mandate of the commission, and who brought not only individual perspectives, skills and knowledge to the table, but extreme passion and commitment to their task, their common goals forming a bond between them.
“It was a joy to work with such talented people,” she said.
She also instituted a policy of ending board meetings, which were open to the public, by asking the gallery for questions and comments.
“No one ever turns to the public and asks that — they don’t know what people will say — but I meant it. I wanted that input.”
The comments were another consideration in forming decisions, she said.
There are four members from the last term still on the board, all of them exceptionally skilled and dedicated, she said, and five politicians, including the mayor of Niagara Falls representing regional council, Lord Mayor Betty Disero, the mayor of Fort Erie and a municipal councillor from Niagara Falls. Sandie Bellows, a regional councillor from St. Catharines, was appointed to the board in the fall and was announced as chair last week, selected by the Ministry of Tourism. There are four other board positions yet to be filled.
Thomson’s term expired in November, and although she re-applied, hoping to stay on, she says she didn’t receive a response from the province.
While she’s confident about the secure future of the agency, there are risks that could arise, including a downturn in tourism that could leave it stretched financially, she said.
The other risk would be for future boards to make a radical departure from what the 134-year-old agency stands for. There is a formula that works to protect parks property in all its diversity — every attraction, every trail, road and bit of shoreline needs to be retained as part of the whole, she said, preserving not only the land but the many stories it tells of its history.
“People need to continue to respect that. The people who created the parks commission were brilliant, and that, along with the wonder of Niagara Falls, gives us an enormous base to attract people.”
And for Thomson going forward?
She’ll miss the many people who worked for the commission, who love it as she does, she said.
And she’ll miss the people she met from all over the world, many of them famous, all with stories of their own.
She remembers Sophie, the countess of Wessex, walking into the Queenston Heights restaurant, and seeing Thomson standing there, handed over her hat and jacket for Thomson to hold before heading outside to review the Lincoln and Welland Regiment.
“I asked myself, ‘did that really happen?’”
She has met movie stars and music icons, including actor Adam Sandler and singer John Legend.
Sandler, she said, was on a private tour, wearing a baseball cap and not interested in drawing attention or being recognized, but when he saw a boy in a wheelchair, he went over to him and chatted — a poignant moment she’ll not forget.
And she recalls the prince she met who saw a record of his father’s visit to the falls in the commission’s guest book. “Those are the moments when you realize the parks have such memories for so many people, far beyond what we will ever know. I have photos of my own family, my parents and brothers at the Floral Clock with my grandparents who were visiting from Scotland — there are so many families with those same photos.”
With the kind of attention and care the parks commission gives each and every attraction, she says, “it will prosper forever, as long as everyone respects its roots.”
After years of evenings and weekends spent ferrying VIP visitors around parks attractions, many early morning meetings to attend, and for the last several years, always knowing where she would spend New Year’s Eve — regardless of the weather, she was at the annual concert at Queen Victoria Park — she will have a gap in her busy schedule.
But Thomson relishes taking on new challenges and is accustomed to being busier than most can imagine. While working full-time as president of the NOTL Chamber of Commerce and on the parks board, she has also served on the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission and was the Niagara representative on the Pan Am and Parapan American Games committee in 2015.
While she isn’t sure yet how she will fill that hole in her schedule, she feels certain the right opportunity will come along, and she looks forward to discovering her next challenge.
“Those were all great experiences,” she said of her years with the parks commission. And as a single woman, she adds, “I don’t have the responsibilities at home that others do. I’m able to choose where I put my time and efforts. There has been a lot of joy in knowing I was doing the best job I could do. I will remain open to other opportunities as they come along, and I’ll have learned from the amazing opportunities I’ve had as the 14th chair of the parks commission.”