Heritage Park hopes return of paddle wheeler, extra council cash will keep it afloat

After coming through some turbulent financial waters, Heritage Park is hoping there's smoother sailing ahead.

The city-owned attraction is projecting a $250,000 deficit for 2018, its first red ink in more than five decades of operations.

It blamed the financial woes on a series of challenges beyond its control.

From the economic downturn which cut into corporate bookings to bad weather, increases in the minimum wage and costs related to the carbon tax. 

The formula seemed to be "costs up, revenues down."


Attendance fell from 623,112 in 2017 to 523,633 last year.

Revenues also took a one-time hit in 2018 when city work on the Glenmore dam required lower water levels on the reservoir, forcing it to keep its popular Moyie paddle wheeler in dry dock for the year.

Losing that summer sailing season meant thousands of visitors stayed away. 

Better days in '19

President and CEO Alida Visbach is hoping that 2019 will be a better year for the history-themed park.

"We have now become experts at pinching a penny and we're very good at stretching our dollars," said Visbach.

She said there are a few signs that things are looking up.

City council approved a $500,000 increase in its annual subsidy, something she said they are grateful to get. Heritage Park had requested a $1 million budget boost.

As well, Visbach said the Moyie will be back on the water this year. It used the year in dry dock to do some repairs on the ship which she says will allow it to stay in service for decades to come.

Heritage Park estimates not having the key attraction sailing in 2018 cost it $1.2 million in visitor revenues.

"When you look at that against a $20 million budget, that's significant," she said.

In 2019, "We expecting to get that back plus because there's a pent-up demand to use the Moyie, to experience the only ship in Calgary."

New exhibits this summer

She said Heritage Park will also cut the ribbon on some new attractions this year, including the refurbished Dingman oil well display and a coal mine feature. 

In a nod to the fact that Calgary's economy remains in a fragile state, there are no plans to increase gate admission or annual pass fees this year.

Visbach said 60 per cent of their visitors are Calgarians or people who live within a one hour drive of Heritage Park.

She's hoping the economy improves because people tend to spend less on entertainment and leisure when times are tough.

"It has an impact on us. There's no question about that. We need to make sure though that we are affordable and attainable within reason. We have to keep our doors open," said VIsbach.

In 2018, another key tourist attraction likely soaked up more of locally available disposable incomes. The Calgary Zoo saw its busiest year ever — with the arrival of giant pandas being the big draw.

Spending controls still in place

Still, Heritage Park is keeping its belt cinched up.

She said staffing will remain tight. It is projecting salary costs will be $1.7 million higher this year than in 2017 because of the increase in Alberta's minimum wage which took effect last October.

During non-summer months in 2019, its Gasoline Alley exhibit is staying closed on Mondays in order to reduce costs. 

Visbach said Gasoline Alley will be open seven days a week when the park's village opens for the peak summer tourist season.