Kneehill County parking report turns into debate about Horseshoe Canyon

A seasonal report on Kneehill County’s Horseshoe Canyon’s parking fee turned into a debate about deficits and the recreational spot’s future. The lengthy discussion occurred at the Nov. 15 regular meeting of council.

Readers should note Horseshoe Canyon is a large badlands feature located within and owned by Kneehill County.

Shelby Sherwick, manager of parks and agricultural services, provided councillors with a report on the Horseshoe Canyon parking fee program, reporting that revenue generated by the program was lower than in 2021.

Sherwick stated it looks like the amount of voluntary donations dropped this year.

However, she noted the number of vehicles on site was similar to 2021.

“The visitation numbers were comparable again to what was observed in 2021 with 7,608 paid vehicles,” stated Sherwick in her report, adding that there were 7,696 paid vehicles in 2021.

Sherwick noted while the 2022 budget forecast $30,000 in revenue to balance a forecast $30,000 in expenses, both numbers actually came in lower this year: $15,943.13 in revenue and $22,307.63 in expenses.

In 2021 the numbers were $17,492.26 and $20,392.42 respectively.

Sherwick reported that seven per cent of visiting vehicle turned around and left when asked for the $2 parking fee. She added that 90 per cent of total visitors were from Alberta, with the other 10 per cent from other parts of Canada and the United States.

Coun. Carrie Fobes asked what duties the two full time county staff perform at the canyon. Sherwick responded they work full time from Thursday to Monday during tourism season collecting the parking fee, checking for litter and answering questions. She noted the staff received formal tourism training.

Coun. Wade Christie noted 24 per cent of people who paid the parking fee were actually opposed to paying it. Sherwick noted that number generally didn’t include the people who turned around and left.

Fobes asked if the parking fee subject should be moved to a committee of the whole meeting as she had a lot of questions about Horseshoe Canyon that didn’t necessarily involve the parking fee and she wasn’t sure the council meeting was the appropriate place for them.

“It’s the whole idea of Horseshoe Canyon I want to have a discussion about,” said Fobes.

However, the discussion continued. Coun. Laura Lee Machell-Cunningham asked where the original $30,000 forecast came from to which Sherwick answered the numbers were based on other tourism sites in the region and adjusted year to year.

Machell-Cunningham asked if county staff at the canyon have first aid training, to which Sherwick answered yes.

Coun. Debbie Penner asked if staff handled any emergencies last summer to which Sherwick answered yes, there were three emergencies, one of which was heat-related.

Fobes asked what caused the larger 2022 deficit. Sherwick noted increased staffing costs. Penner stated she saw benefits to having staff at the canyon including crime prevention and keeping an eye on the washrooms.

Fobes asked if wedding bookings at the canyon have to pay for parking. Sherwick stated no, the wedding bookings use the same area that the long table dinner uses.

More questions were also asked about the duties of the two staff members and transportation, with Sherwick stating during COVID staff had to travel in separate vehicles because of the pandemic rules, while that has been relaxed now.

Deputy Reeve Ken King, who was chairing the meeting, stated he felt the lookout area is in much better condition now that county staff are keeping an eye on it.

Machell-Cunningham stated an idea to change the “parking fee” to something more akin to a “park fee” adding that she would support extending the parking fee program another year while also stating councillors should decide to what extent they will accept a deficit from this program.

Coun. Faye McGhee pointed out people who don’t want to pay the parking fee can visit the canyon on Tuesdays or Wednesdays when staff have the days off.

Fobes stated that ratepayers have asked her if monies are being spent on Horseshoe Canyon and the rest of Kneehill County is being ignored.

King responded, “We’re not ignoring the rest of the county and the rest of the tourism sites.” He also pointed out other recreational facilities, such as Ron Gorr Memorial Arena in Torrington, receives far more Kneehill County funding than Horseshoe Canyon does.

Councillors unanimously approved extending the Horseshoe Canyon facility fee program, formerly known as the parking fee program, for another year.

Stu Salkeld, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, East Central Alberta Review