Backlash washes over Cowichan Bay’s new estuary nature centre

The mysteries and wonders of the Cowichan Bay estuary will be displayed in a new nature centre planned to be installed in Hecate Park later this spring. - John McKinley/file
The mysteries and wonders of the Cowichan Bay estuary will be displayed in a new nature centre planned to be installed in Hecate Park later this spring.
— image credit: John McKinley/file

Some Cowichan Bay residents, merchants and visitors are questioning the wisdom of building an Estuary Nature Centre in Hecate Park, claiming it’ll spark parking problems, and steal core business.

They also claim there was little or no public consultation about the facility set to open by March 31.

But Bay Director Lori Iannidinardo, and project chairwoman Jane Kilthei of the Cowichan Land Trust, defended the decision to locate the $350,000 centre in Hecate.

Chris Killam, head of the merchant-based Cowichan Bay Improvement Association, recognized the centre’s pros and cons.

“Most of us are supportive,” he said, but noted many members believe consultation was thin.

Resident Gerry McGuinness echoes that concern in a letter to the News Leader Pictorial.

“Neither the Cowichan Land Trust nor the CVRD have discussed this proposed project with community organizations, leaders or merchants.”

“There was a meeting about this at the maritime centre,” countered Iannidinardo.

‘”They’ve (land trust) been working on the funding for months, and it’s been (advertised) in (Hecate) park during events. It wasn’t like it was top secret.”

Kilthei said the land trust started applying for provincial funding about a year ago.

“We contacted local organizations and businesses, and got a tremendous number of letters of support.”

Asked why a big meeting wasn’t held about the centre, Kilthei said, “We didn’t see the need for one because all the feedback we got was positive, and continues to be.”

Count resident Terri Young in.

“Putting a gorgeous building in Hecate Park, mostly paid for from outside sources, with the intention to bring more folk to the bay to learn and experience, is all a good thing,” she says in a letter to the NLP.

And there’s no obligation by the CVRD to hold a public meeting because they’re not spending tax dollars on the centre, noted Kilthei.

It’s being funded by local donations, the West Coast Community Adjustment Program, the Island Coastal Economic Trust.

“The CVRD makes decisions about creating amenities such as the centre,” she noted of the eco-facility going on Area D (bay) parkland.

“We talked to the parks commission, and that was open to the public.

“We’ve thrown our arms open to the public soliciting input about this by being at every community event with brochures,” Kilthei said.

Right, said Iannidinardo, citing a recent fundraiser at the Bay Pub, plus Rotary club support.

But McGuinness calls the site is “totally inappropriate. It is effectively expropriating our village and community park facility, and tourism promotion.”

Iannidinardo said if a better spot than Hecate surfaces, the building’s moveable.

“It also has public washrooms, which are needed.”

Hecate allows a broader bay vista, and an interpretive area on the park’s grassy area, Kilthei said.

“We’re being very careful to not take up the picnic spaces,” she said, citing a green-shore plan to restore eroded areas.

McGuiness also pointed to the bay’s parking crunch for businesses, boaters and events — and that problem will grow with the centre.

“It’s hardly a safe place for the proposed busloads of schoolchildren.”

Kilthei replied: “The building itself will take up five parking spaces. Those will be recovered at the other end of the park so people can walk along the path to the building — not one single boat-launch parking place will be taken.”

“How often has the Hecate lot been full?” asked Iannidinardo, noting boat-launch upgrades planned with public input.

Young explained boaters parking trailers in Hecate add little to the bay’s economy, while taking scarce stalls from downtown visitors.

“There’s no single solution that’ll make everyone happy.”

The Hecate centre will also draw support away from core businesses such as kayaking, bistros, and shops, said McGuinness.

But Kilthei believed the centre’s a tourist magnet.

“People visiting the centre are likely to park in Hecate then walk downtown because we’ll have brochures promoting places to have lunch.

“The centre may actually alleviate parking right in the bay — and many people come for bird-watching in the fall and winter when we don’t have a parking problem.”

The land trust plans co-operative programs with the maritime centre and other firms too, she said.

But talks about sharing property-taxes and centre profits are lacking, along with studies of long-term benefits,  McGuinness says.

“We don’t expect to make a profit,” Kithei said. “Our plan is to keep entrance fees and costs low.”

McGuiness mentioned numerous alternate sites, such as Western Stevedoring’s site in estuary’s western end.

“That would be isolated,” Iannidinardo said.

“This centre’s for economic development in the community, and funds are being given because of it being on the foreshore and being highly visible.”

The land trust looked at other sites, Kilthei said, and couldn’t afford to buy land.

They both ruled out a floating facility at the federal wharf to protect eelgrass, and Hecate is local public land.

McGuinness also suggested leasing land at Cowichan Tribes’ Kilpahlas Beach.

“We’ve got Tribes representatives on our committee,” said Kilthei, “and three of their biologists have been quite involved.

“We’re very aware of the need to go through appropriate processes with the Tribes — we want to explain the long history of the estuary, and of the Cowichan Tribes.”

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