With Parks Canada having increased parking fees for buses at Fort George, town staff has been asked to look at alternatives, and the hospital site could be one of them.
After 18 years of allowing the Town the use of the parking lot at no cost, Parks Canada notified the Town last spring that it would start charging 50 per cent of the gross revenues from the fees paid by tour operators for bus parking, but negotiations got the cost reduced to 25 per cent.
The Town, during its budget discussions, had already decided to raise the price of parking for tour buses by $25.
The Chamber of Commerce operates a visitor centre at the site, with washrooms, and the Town runs a shuttle bus from the fort to the the parking lot behind the Court House.
Councillors heard last week from interim CAO Sheldon Randall that while most visitors take the bus to town, when they realize how short the distance is, they often walk back. When the use of a Fort George parking lot was first discussed more than 20 years ago, the goal was to draw tour buses to the historic site, in the hope that some visitors would also tour the fort. However, councillors heard that hasn’t worked out — most of the buses don’t stay in town long enough.
With budget discussions approaching, council discussed whether it might be time for town staff to look at cheaper alternatives for parking.
With the cost of operating and maintaining the lot, along with the commission paid to Parks Canada, “it will be a challenge for us to make any money from it and pay our bills,” said Randall.
Since the contract with Parks Canada was only for a year, it will expire within months, and the Town may have no alternative but to sign if it doesn’t look at other options, councillors fear.
Randall said there have been several reports on parking alternatives prepared in the past, but no options that were satisfactory were found.
However, with the hospital now closed — it is still used for doctors’ offices and the Royal Oak Community School — that is one possible location that has never been considered.
“I’m only aware of one location that we haven’t studied for parking coach buses and that would be the recently acquired property of the former hospital site on Wellington,” said Randall.
If council wants to explore other options, “that’s the only new site that’s come up within the heritage district or a location that makes sense for getting buses in and out of town safely and with the least impact,” he said.
“I don’t think we should be exploring other locations, we’ve done that. The only new location is Wellington Street.”
The Fort George parking lot “evolved over years,” he said, with huge debates and a lot of effort going into it through a partnership with Parks Canada.
The Town looked at “all kinds of options back then,” he added. “The only viable option would be the hospital property.”
Randall suggested it’s an exercise the Town should consider. It might make sense, he said, especially if it means the shuttle is no longer necessary.
“I think there is some urgency to get this done,” said Coun. Norm Arsenault, with the Parks Canada lease expiring at the end of 2019.
Coun. Burroughs said because of the increase in parking for tour operators, buses are parking on side streets for free.
Staff and councillors should sit down with Parks Canada to discuss future terms, he said.
“It’s not going to be a good solution for us to suddenly pull out.”
“We haven’t had a lot of reports of buses going rogue on side streets,” said Randall.
There are always a few bus drivers who do that, he added, but he doesn’t have data to show if there is an increase and if it’s related to the hike in the parking fee.
Coun. Allan Bisback, who made the motion to look at alternatives, said the reason was very simple: the lease expires in two months on a parking regime the Town depends on, he said.
“We know Parks Canada very well,” said Randall. “I have no concern about them saying you’re not going to park buses in here in 2020.”
He said it might be time to look at the feasibility of using the hospital site, “but if we’re not going to eliminate the shuttles, we should stay where we are.”
The discussion ended with direction to staff for a “high level information report” on previous studies and a look on the possibility of using the hospital parking lot for bus parking, based on the premise that the goal is for a site that would have the least impact on the rest of town.