If you found many millions of dollars in your backyard, it would make sense to scoop them up, right?
Little wonder then that the community leaders responsible for running Fort Edmonton Park have embraced the idea of building an outdoor spa on a largely vacant parking area just outside the fort.
The Edmonton Nordic Spa won’t just be pure bliss for its hundreds of daily users, it will be a significant catalyst for more success at Fort Edmonton.
The lofty goal of the Fort Edmonton Management Company is to create exciting new facilities, attract more visitors, lower admission prices, maintain and build on the park’s historic integrity, stay open year-round and become the premier tourist destination in Western Canada.
None of that was likely to happen with the path Fort Edmonton is currently on, not even with the injection of $165 million for a major infrastructure rebuild and for facility improvements and additions, a project which now sees the park closed until May 2021.
But with the Fort Edmonton board now working with the same innovative business group that recently opened up the booming Kananaskis Nordic spa in order to build and operate a similar spa adjacent to the fort, the ambitions of park boosters have a far better chance of being realized.
When Hank Van Weelden, managing partner of Kananaskis and Edmonton Nordic Spas, first approached Darren Dalgleish, president and CEO of Fort Edmonton Management Company, Dalgleish at once grasped the potential of the $20-million, privately-funded spa.
“I was halfway through my first sentence and he’s like, ‘I’m in,’” Van Weelden said.
Dalgleish had been hired by Fort Edmonton in 2017 based on his reputation for breathing life into fading heritage sites. His background is in engineering and automotive manufacturing, but seven years ago he got into the tourism industry, running the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, including Fort Henry and Upper Canada Village.
The main issue for heritage parks and museums is that visitation has been slowly dropping, Dalgleish said.
“I’ve got two teenaged kids,” Dalgleish said. “They’re not as interested in seeing how a broom is made or a horseshoe is put on as they are with the wave pool at West Edmonton Mall.”
Governments have all kinds of funding priorities, from roads and bridges to schools and hospitals, so cultural institutions have to be pro-active, Dalgleish said.
Hence, Dalgleish’s embrace of the partnership with the Nordic spa.
Don Cummings, chairman of the Fort Edmonton Park board and a board member since 2000, says when his board first heard of the spa idea they had to work through how it fit with their mandate. “It didn’t take long to figure out that this has got a pretty good synergy.”
Fort Edmonton does a great job of protecting and advancing the city’s heritage, Cummings said. The spa doesn’t take away from that but gives another big reason for people to visit the fort. “It’s probably one of the two or three most significant opportunities that have come our way since I’ve been on the board.”
Dalgleish hopes the spa will help in the board’s biggest goal: lowering ticket prices for families. Right now it can cost $100 for a family to go to the park. Dalgleish would like to see tickets at $5 to $10 per person. The only way to lower the price is to get far more traffic, far more people showing up and spending money within the park.
The spa will be a quiet, reflective place, so users of the fort won’t see it or hear it. And it’s not going on unblemished land. The project will redevelop under-utilized and poorly-utilized land adjacent to the fort.
“It’s not in the park at all,” Dalgleish said. “We wouldn’t even consider that.”
Fort Edmonton will make money off the spa by leasing the land to Van Weelden’s group. The Selkirk Hotel, which is doubling in size but has less than ten per cent occupancy rate, will likely be the hotel of choice for many spa users. “Without the spa, doubling it doesn’t make any sense. With the spa, it’s like the best business decision somebody could make,” Van Weelden said of the hotel. “It’s going to be the most romantic stay-cation you could ever imagine.”
The fort’s massive commercial kitchen, which has only a ten per cent utilization rate now, at Blatchford Hangar will supply food to the spa’s bistro 12 months per year.
Add it all up and the Nordic spa is a slam dunk for both Edmonton and Fort Edmonton. As Van Weelden puts it — “It’s a win-win-win-win-win-win.”