The Grist Mill Foundation is concerned that a new direction from the province threatens the future of the Keremeos Grist Mill as one of the area’s leading tourist attractions.
Last week, the province announced that it was looking for proposals from groups or individuals that would be able to make use of the 137-year-old site, home to the only working water-driven mill west of Winnipeg, without relying on public funds.
The site is currently contracted out to a private individual, Chris Mathieson, who operates the mill as a provincial heritage site. Dave Cursons, chair of the foundation, said that is the way they would like to see it continue. He sees the latest request for proposals as the B.C. Heritage branch attempting to divest itself of responsibility for the mill.
“The land and the artifacts that are there would come under a lease to a private entrepreneur, who would — on their own, without government funding — seek to make that provincial historic site operated the way a private entrepreneur might operate a museum,” said Cursons. “I don’t know of very many private entrepreneurs who operate museums for profit. Museums and such things as provincial historic sites aren’t usually considered money-making propositions.”
Cursons is concerned that a private operator might not keep to the heritage flavour of the site, which also boasts Victorian gardens, grain fields and a heritage orchard. Those might be replaced, he worries, by more high-profile attractions like an amusement park or waterslides.
Linda Larson, Liberal MLA for Boundary Similkameen, said it doesn’t have to be a private entrepreneur.
The Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen could take over the mill or even a group like the foundation. What is certain, however, is that the province plans to reduce its financial commitment over the coming years.
“They can make it totally sustainable by coming up with more ways to make money or they can do like we did in the town of Oliver: have a referendum and get the taxpayers to kick in a little money,” said Larson. “Either one of those laid out as a plan would probably get government support. And even the possibility of some ongoing support until it was up and running and doing its own thing.”
Larson suggested the best way to care for the mill may be a combination of both: a standard amount of tax dollars to keep the doors open and then paying for enhancements by developing new income sources.