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Vancouver not maximizing top park attractions, says former Park Board chair

VanDusen, Bloedel Conservatory public golf courses contribute millions in revenue but may be under-utilized, according to a staff report
The Bloedel Conservatory generated a little over $1 million in revenue in 2022.

Former Vancouver Park Board chair John Coupar said the early closing hours of the board’s biggest ticketed attractions are a bummer of the summer.

Last Friday, after dinner at Seasons in the Park, he noticed the crowds of people on the plaza atop Queen Elizabeth Park. But the Bloedel Conservatory, which he campaigned to restore, had closed two hours earlier. Its April-to-September hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“We’ve just seen our taxes go up 10 per cent, the new mayor [Ken Sim] is talking a lot about bringing the fun back, getting the swagger back,” said Coupar, a board commissioner from 2011 to 2022. “We've got two facilities that are already there and we're not maximizing revenue.”

Coupar said the ABC supermajority, elected to all but one seat last October, is not using the power to maximize revenue.

“I think they're trying, but none of them have any experience or any history with the park board,” Coupar said.

Meanwhile, VanDusen Garden operated through July on a 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. weekday schedule, closing at 6 p.m. Fridays to Sundays. August sees 7 p.m. closings on Thursdays.

Less than a month ago, staff delivered the “Think Big” revenue strategy report, which contained a key line about “existing [Park Board] assets and facilities may be under-utilized in some areas, such as advertising, sponsorship, partnerships, and market rate rentals.”

VanDusen ($4.46 million) and Bloedel ($1.07 million) contributed to $64 million in revenue last year. Golf courses were the biggest money makers at $11.59 million.

A statement from Ema Tanaka, the garden director for both Bloedel and VanDusen, said hours are determined annually by staff in the fourth quarter “guided by data-driven decisions that consider demand and historical visitation patterns.” She said staff will continue to “analyze demand and data to optimize our operating hours.” 

“The current hours are similar to many other local attractions, striking a balance between providing public access and ensuring operational efficiency,” Tanaka said. “For comparison, the Vancouver Aquarium operates from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the UBC Botanical Garden from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Science World from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden from 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.”  

Coupar points to the history of Bloedel, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019 and opened daily from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. in December of that year for Festival Tropicale. He said it would need a cashier and security guard to remain open longer. The aquarium, by contrast, is a totally different facility with fish and marine mammals that require constant care and tanks and pools that need after-hours maintenance and repair.

“You could always cherry pick to justify a decision and I think that's what's being done here,” Coupar said.

Coupar said a better comparison would be to civic facilities such as the Creekside (6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.) and Hillcrest community centres (9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library (9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.).

Elsewhere, Chicago’s Botanic Garden runs from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Butchart Gardens outside of Victoria remains open until 10 p.m Wednesdays to Sundays from June to mid-September.

Coupar was the NPA mayoral candidate until a dispute over fundraising with the party board a year ago. The NPA board replaced him with Beijing resident Fred Harding, but the ex-cop finished fifth and the entire slate of the city’s oldest party was shut out.

Coupar said he would “never say never” to another run for Park Board in 2026, but that he is enjoying retirement.