‘Ottawa’ Pilieci: Is Gatineau Park Really Creating a $241 Million Economic Impact?
The National Capital Commission says Gatineau Park is responsible for $241.5 million in annual economic impact and 4,728 jobs in the region.
The statistics were released as part of a new study that was revealed on Tuesday by the NCC.
“Gatineau Park’s contribution to gross domestic product surpasses $241 million per year” and “activities by Gatineau Park visitors generated $184 million in annual expenditures: at restaurants, on sports and recreational equipment, and on shopping,” reads the report entitled “Gatineau Park visitor and economic impact study final report.”
The report was compiled by consultants at Environics Analytics and Nordicity Group Ltd. The NCC spent $122,602 plus HST on the study.
Researchers came to the totals after conducting surveys with around 7,000 people last year. Surveys were conducted on-site at the park, by telephone, as well as online.
By comparison, the Ottawa Senators hockey club is believed to account for $100 million in economic impact in Ottawa, according to a 2014 study. The Rideau Centre is believed to account for around $700 million in spend annually and the City of Ottawa employs around 12,000 people.
If the statistics are to be believed, and some other media organizations reported them as fact, then the economic impact of the park appears substantial. Gatineau Park: A 361-square-kilometre nature preserve that on its own creates thousands of jobs and adds millions and millions of dollars to the economy.
But is that true? The numbers in the NCC-commissioned report are not necessarily false, but how they’ve been presented is questionable. The nearly quarter-billion number trotted out by the NCC is eye-catching and makes for a good story. And that’s the issue. Dig a bit deeper and the numbers become a bit less dazzling.
“It seems far too high,” said Barry Nabatian, a director with market research firm Shore Tanner Associates. “Campers’ fees and day-pass admissions are clearly due to the park. Otherwise, the spending would most likely happen anyway. For example, they may have included the cost of buying lunch/picnic stuff to take to the park, but people have to eat anyway, and therefore such costs should not be considered as economic benefit.”
According to the study, “600,000 people visited Gatineau Park from September 2015 to August 2016” and “expenditures related to visiting Gatineau Park” during that time frame “amounted to approximately $184 million.” To put that into perspective, if we trust the study’s statistics, each of those visitors spent $306.67 visiting Gatineau Park, which seems like pretty expensive picnic-ing. To be fair, the study’s authors said many of the visitors came to the park multiple times over the course of the year, making 2.6 million visits. For those visiting multiple times, that spend would have been spread out.
Things get a little more muddy after dissecting the study’s claim about the park’s impact on gross domestic product (GDP). According to the study’s authors, the GDP impact generated by the park was $241.5 million. However, the impact on the GDP of the national capital region was only $145 million. The remaining $96.5 million was created by the park for Quebec, other Ontario municipalities and other provinces across the country, according to the studies authors. Expenses like airfare, train tickets, hotel stays and the price of items, like, say, new cross-country skis, were all factored into calculating the GDP generated by the park.
Basically, if a person comes to Ottawa to visit a family member and happens to go to the park, the cost of their travel, meals and additional expenses were all factored into the report’s conclusions.
What was missing from the report is the actual amount of spending done by visitors to the park during the study. In an interview with the study’s authors, Nordicity and Environics, it was revealed that park visitors spent a total of $1.87 million on parking, day passes, ski passes and other direct fees associated with visiting Gatineau Park between September 2015 to August 2016. The study’s authors also revealed that the annual operating expenses associated with the park, which includes salaries, upkeep and other spend, is around $7 million. There are a total of 23 full-time employees working at Gatineau Park in a variety of roles, according to the NCC. There are also various volunteers.
So what about the 4,728 jobs number suggested by the report? Well, that person you bought skis from, no matter if you didn’t buy the skis specifically to use in Gatineau Park, that’s a job that could get included.
The massive disparity in perceived spending versus actual spending and actual employee count versus a projected number is a problem that a majority of economic impact studies face.
According to Brandon Schaufele, assistant professor of business, economics and public policy in the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario, conducting an economic impact study is difficult, but it is especially difficult to estimate the economic impact of something like a public park.
“In general, it’s very demanding. It’s very challenging to estimate the economic impact of Gatineau Park,” he said. “Are people coming to the national capital to go to Gatineau Park? Probably some. But not likely most. It’s likely people are coming to see the capital, Parliament Hill, the museums and are also going to Gatineau Park. If you go to Chelsea for lunch, is that because of Gatineau Park or because Chelsea has a nice lunch venue?”
As far as the dollar value associated with the park’s economic impact, Schaufele didn’t comment on it directly, but did say it was low compared to most of the other economic impact studies he has read.
The consultants who compiled the NCC study told the Citizen that the $241.5 million in economic impact created by the park represented a very “conservative” estimate.
However, some wondered why the NCC would feel the need to associate a dollar value with what is arguably the most treasured public park in the national capital region.
Paul Dewar, former NDP MP for Ottawa Centre and a long-time supporter of new protections for the park, expressed concern about the NCC’s attempt to associate a dollar value with the public lands.
“It’s always been understood that this was of great value,” he said. “How does this fit into the NCC’s mandate? What are they going to be doing with this information?”
The NCC said it decided to commission the study in order to help collect research to better the management of public lands in the nation’s capital.
“The findings will be instrumental to the upcoming renewal of the Gatineau Park Master Plan,” said Jasmine Leduc, a spokeswoman for the NCC. “A greater understanding of the park’s visitors and their activities in the park, as well as the park’s connection to the local economy, is essential to the NCC’s efforts to conserve and protect the park’s ecological integrity.”
Leduc said the NCC does not plan to sell any land in Gatineau Park.
While an attendance count and better traffic management policies, which may even include limiting visitors to the park at times, may be a worthwhile effort to “conserve and protect the park’s ecological integrity,” slapping a questionable dollar value to detail the park’s economic importance to the region seems like a fruitless endeavour. Spending $122,602 of taxpayers’ money to associate a dollar figure with the park’s value seems like a waste.
The park is exactly that, a park. It’s a place that can used by all residents and visitors as a big backyard. It’s somewhere for people to go where they don’t need to spend money to reconnect with nature, mountain bike through rough terrain, swim, ski or walk with family. It’s value is in being open space for people to use, not a revenue-generating machine that attracts tourist dollars.