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Winter camping at Fort Edmonton Park, zoo app among plans for federal $3.7M to capital city attractions

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An injection of $3.7 million plus change from the federal government will be used to enhance and bring new programming to Fort Edmonton Park, Edmonton Valley Zoo, Muttart Conservatory and downtown Edmonton. 

In the case of Canada's largest open-air museum, Fort Edmonton Management Company plans to develop year-round programming – like winter camping and tours – to increase the museum's profitability. 

To the zoo, the cash has meant catching up on new ideas it couldn't afford to pursue during the pandemic. 

"We're positioning Alberta and Edmonton not just for survival," federal tourism minister and Edmonton MP Randy Boissonnault said on Tuesday, announcing the funding on behalf of PrairiesCan Minister Dan Vandal. "We're done with survival days. We are now into revival and we're into growth."

The money is coming from PrairiesCan's Tourism Relief Fund, a two-year $500-million initiative by the federal government to make Canada a top-choice destination when the tourism sector rebounded. 

$1.2M TO FORT EDMONTON PARK 

The Fort Edmonton Management Company (FEMCo) has "big plans" for the park in the heart of Edmonton's river valley, says its CEO and president, Darren Dalgleish. 

In addition to more exhibits featuring Indigenous stories and culture, it is using the $1.2 million from PrairiesCan to offer winter programming like light displays, train rides and camping adjacent to Fort Edmonton Park.

FEMCo imagines an "open dome… look-at-the-sky, observe-the-northern lights, overnight experience," Dalgleish told CTV News Edmonton. 

"And this is not just for the winter. This would be operational for the entire year. And you don't have to drive an hour or two to get to some experience like this."

The motive behind all of FEMCo's winter plans is to create off-season revenue, some of which – like the camping – would be entirely separate from the museum. 

"This is always something very challenging to do because the museums are generally not profit centres, so the cash left over for new investment and new expanded product is rare and it's scarce," Dalgleish said. 

"So these would be profit-driven decisions. These would be events and activities that would actually help offset the operating loss of the museum component." 

He called the move "critical" to the sustainability of cultural institutions like Fort Edmonton Park. 

"Without this... we would be fighting a spiralling cost and the only lever you can pull then is the price of admission. And that's not really where we want to go."

FEMCo is working to offer some winter activities as soon as December, but Dalgleish noted much of the work is still in the design stage. 

$1M TO ZOO 

Edmonton Valley Zoo received $1 million from the Tourism Relief Fund. 

Some of the cash went to make safety and security upgrades. The rest will be used to expand on its signature light festival, Zoominescence, and adult tour night, ZooBrew. 

As well, the zoo is putting on sensory-friendly programming throughout March, working on more virtual programming in an app, and opening an eco-friendly and accessible gender-neutral washroom. 

"We were able to take those programs the zoo staff already had an idea for and run with them that we couldn't have before," Tammy Wiebe, executive director of the Valley Zoo Development Society, said. 

"Being able to spend money on tourism and guest services, it was just a really nice bonus."

She confirmed the federal dollars were not used for infrastructure renewal the zoo is doing with $36 million from the city

$1M TO MUTTART CONSERVATORY 

The Muttart Conservatory is using the $1 million it received from PrairiesCan to bring in new programming and enhance some of its spaces. 

For example, the conservatory will be home to the "best outdoor patio in Edmonton" as of this spring, the city's director of horticulture facilities promised on Tuesday. 

Rhonda Norman also promised sensory-friendly programming was in the works. 

Overall, those at the conservatory are working to rebuild attendance levels destroyed during the pandemic, she told CTV News Edmonton. 

In January and February, the Muttart used some tourism relief funding to bring the "Gaia" exhibit to Edmonton. That showing resulted in the conservatory's highest attendance in history.

In the summer, the conservatory will host a Lego exhibit featuring a nine-foot model of its own pyramids and a 24-foot replica of the High Level Bridge, among other Edmonton landmarks. 

"With the funding from this program, we're able to do things that we only dreamed about to really enhance our visitor experience at the facility and advance our environmental programs," Norman said.

Until March 31, Muttart Conservatory and Edmonton Valley Zoo are offering two-for-one admission.  

$500K TO CITY OF EDMONTON 

Finally, the City of Edmonton received $500,000 for interactive art and decorative lighting in the Churchill Square, City Hall and arts district areas. 

All of the projects funded by PrairiesCan build on the effort Edmonton is making to become a world destination, Boissonnault said, congratulating the city on hosting the 2023 Juno Awards a day earlier. 

"You have brought not just the country, but music royalty from Canada and around the world, to our city and you knocked it out of the park," the federal minister commented. 

"The Junos will be back and it will not take 19 years in between Junos in Edmonton thanks to your collective leadership."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Amanda Anderson

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