The regional district Community Services Committee and a gallery full of Grist Mill proponents heard about the province’s latest plans for the heritage site at the regional district board meeting on November 7.
Richard Linzey, Manager of Heritage Programs and Services, part of the Heritage Branch, took the board on a short trip down memory lane as he outlined the property’s history, including the changes in provincial policy with respect to operation of the site over the past 40 years.
The Grist Mill has been a designated Provincial Heritage Site under the Archaeological and Historic Sites Protection Act since 1974.
The site was developed into a tourist attraction through the 1980s and early 1990s.
In 1994, the Heritage Conservation Statutes Amendment Act gave authority to provide heritage conservation as a service in the Local Government Act, among other statuates. It was also recognized at the time that historic places are “best identified and most effectively cared for by the communities for which they hold significance.”
In 2003, however, a core services review came to the conclusion that the province should provide leadership in heritage conservation, but leave stewardship of heritage property to local government as a community-based responsibility.
Betweeen 2003 and 2007, $65,000 was provided on an annual basis to subsidize the cost of operating the Grist Mill as a gated heritage attraction.
Site revenues peaked in 2002-3, then declined from $150,000 annually in to $46,000 in the 2005-6 season.
In 2007, the RDOS commissioned a business case analysis for the Grist Mill from the Similkameen Valley Planning Society. The study identified the level of investment required to bring the mill back to peak operational levels.
The plan also investigated a traditional gated attraction model and determined that it would take six years and $400,000 in operations and maintenance subsidies to reach the break even point.
After assessing the business case, the RDOS opted not to enter into a partnership agreement with the province.
From 2009 until 2012, the mill operated as a gated heritage attraction, run by Jim and Brenda Miller of Port Moody.
From 2009 to 2011, the Millers were provided a budget of $85,000, rising to $160,000 for 2012.In 2013, new operator Chris Mathieson was awarded a budget of $140,000.
At the direction of the Treasury Board, in 2011 government provided $21million to address deferred major maintenance and to provide for operations and maintenance at eleven gated provincial heritage sites over three years. The Treasury Board also directed the ministry to review options for increasing heritage site self-sufficiency, up to and including disposal.
In 2013 Mathieson was able to increase attendance to 6,100 from 2,700 in 2011. By most local standards, his first year’s efforts were considered laudable as he succeeded in bringing special events and attractions to the mill.
The resurgence in attendance and renewed vitality of the mill site, especially during weekends, had many locals believing that the mill had turned the corner in terms of a consistent, reliable operation.
A request for Expressions of Interest made by the province earlier this year, however, intended to:
– propose a form of land alocation that transferred land to another order of government, a First Nation or a society.
– propose a business plan that took advantage of land tenure as a way to invest in the lands through capital improvements.
– be supported by a preliminary business case that suggested a viable and believeable business idea.
– reduce, and if possible, cease dependency on government for operating and maintenance costs.
Mathieson’s expression of interest did not achieve the minumum score necessary to be invited to make a full proposal, Linzey told the board, noting that it was “very good,” but scored poorly for its preliminary business plan, which required $450,000 over the next four years in order for the mill to be a self-sustaining business entity.
Linzey told the board that the province was now considering four possible options for the Grist Mill site. They included:
– A sponsored Crown Grant / nominal rent tenure, where part of the Grist Mill property would be sold, the funds to be used by the regional district or other local government to operate and maintain the property.
– A second version of a sponsored Crown Grant / nominal rent tenure, where part of the mill property would be sold and the proceeds invested in improvements to the White House that would allow it to be rented (at no cost) to a tenant who would then provide management and programming for the site.
– Option three would see the two mill lots sold and the White House and Apple House put on the heritage registry.
Similkameen directors were not happy with the province’s options.
“The result of the community consultation was to have the Grist Mill financed through a combination of funding from the provincial government and revenues generated at the the site. I feel that the present manager has done a tremendous job of getting the support needed to put the Grist Mill on the right path to a sustainable and successful business model,” said Keremeos Director Manfred Bauer.
“It is my impression that the heritage branch is trying to relieve themselves of the responsibility to preserve our heritage sites by asking local governments to take on what is clearly a provincial mandate.”
Area “G” Director Angelique Wood, in whose jurisdiction the mill property lies, said she was “shocked and dismayed” by the options presented by Linzey.
“The Grist Mill is much more than a heritage site: it is a piece of infrastructure which has been resurrected from neglect and continues to be usable for the purpose that it was built: milling grain.”
“In this time of global food insecurity, increasing gas costs and climate change, we need to consider sustainable alternatives to our globalized food economy.”
“The Heritage Branch, working with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture should be considering the merits of redeveloping this property for use as it was originally intended.”
“To offer to download the site in a year’s time is appalling for a population as small and economically distressed as the Similkameen. There is little likelihood of success to such a proposal,” Wood said, adding the mill would be an ideal fit for future collaborations with local organic farmers and their crops.
“It is my sincere hope that the Heritage Branch gives sober second thought to a transitional period of at least five years to the current operator Chris Mathieson,”she said.
Area “B” Director George Bush suggested the options outlining sale of any part of the historic site shouldn’t even be on the table.
“I see a huge potential for growth in the mill in the short term,” insisted Mathieson following Linzey’s presentation.
“The site can be what it was designed to be – it needs a little more money and a little more time – and a little more commitment. The constantly changing scenarios make it very difficult to do business.”
The RDOS board did not consider any of Linzey’s offers at the meeting, Director Wood noted earlier this week. She said there may be an opportunity for further discussion of the offers presented at the next board meeting, adding it will also come to committee again both as a budget discussion and under the heritage plan.
“I have instructed staff that I am not interested in entertaining the offer as I feel it compromises both our residents and the site,” she said in an email to the Review earlier this week.