Memo to Mayor and Council: Can you hold off on the proposed sale of Otter Lake property until you consider this possible scenario?
In my February 29 column, “If I had a Million Dollars” I suggested that developing the Otter Lake property as a residential area might not be such a good idea. What I did not mention in that column was that I had another idea for those 500 hundred acres. I have been buying lottery tickets in the desperate hope that I could win the millions I needed to buy the Otter Lake land before it went to public auction, but I have not been lucky.
What I wanted to do was create a wildlife park based on the model of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida (www.audubon.org/local/sanctuary/corkscrew). For those who have never visited that attraction, it is run by Audubon and it dedicated as a bird (and wildlife) sanctuary for the protection of birds who make that part of the world their home. Corkscrew has a commercial side to it, but it is really a birdwatchers heaven and teaching island in the middle of the rapidly encroaching flood of humans in Florida.
Corkscrew has 11,000 acres but only uses about 50 acres as the viewing area. Otter Lake, with its adjacent vacant land, could more than meet the needs of a Wildlife Park. Otter Lake has even more variety of terrain than Corkscrew. Its lake, wetlands, highlands, deciduous and coniferous forests could harbour many wild animals and an ever-changing birding site. Like Corkscrew, Otter Lake would be a year-around attraction.
However, my vision of Otter Lake is much more ‘commercial’ than its southern cousin. We could have a Wildlife Recovery section, complete with veterinarians, for rehabilitating critters of all kinds. There is the potential for an Observatory if we can keep the night sky free of light pollution in that area. A conference/ teaching facility overlooking the lake is a must along with a forestry Interpretative centre. A cafeteria and souvenir section is mandatory, but we could add a year-around butterfly centre as these are educational and seem to be good draws.
A recent encounter with some Europeans tells me they are still very interested in our Native Peoples and a First Nations area in the Park might be a good partnership for the Park. And I think our target audience has to be Europeans and Asians as they seem to be hungry for a taste of northern Canadian wilderness. We would of course, welcome our Southern friends and locals as well, but this is to be a tourist ‘Destination’.
I see the Park as a place where we can partner with the private sector to display, advertise and use all the most current ecologically friendly products. We would use as much solar energy as possible; washrooms would be non-polluting; equipment would be electrically powered where practical; boardwalks would be constructed of recycled plastics, etc. The Park would have an area accessible by wheelchairs as well as longer trails over uneven terrain for walkers.
Are there enough birds and critters in the area to attract people? Ask our birders and they will attest to the variety of birds in the spring to fall seasons. And the winter has its own unique birds that are not seen by people from the warmer climes. Like Corkscrew, the birds are attracted to the general area by feeding stations that are unseen from the boardwalks. The feeding stations attract mice, squirrels and then their predators.
The Wildlife Recovery station will always have birds and animals that cannot be released back to the wild and they could be sheltered in a viewing area that simulates the wild.
The flora of our area is at least as interesting as the swamp in Florida. It could be enhanced by a greenhouse cultivation centre where seedlings could be grown for reforestation – another possible P3 with someone like Tembec. Wildflower blooming season could be featured draw for botanists.
These are just some of the ideas around a Wildlife Park at Otter Lake. The main advantage over selling this land to a residential developer is that it will create many permanent jobs while the City still retains ownership of the land. The plan would be to lease the land for 30 years at a cost equal to the assessed taxes – which will increase as the property is developed. At the end of the lease, it can be renewed or the land then sold for other use. The spin off for local businesses will be like having a year-around Heritage festival! There is any amount of land closer to the serviced area in the city for development, and Otter Lake could be better used as a tourist attraction that does not need city services.
Who could the City partner with to develop Otter Lake Park? There may be someone who would run with the whole package, but if we could attract businesses like Tembec or Grant Forest to sponsor a sector of the park, others may come onside for wildlife and environment protection partners. Nipissing University or some other teaching partner could run / maintain the butterfly and botanical sectors. NGOs like the Nature Conservatory, Canadian Wildlife Federation, Ducks Unlimited or even the Audubon Society may be interested in donating for buildings or trails that would display their name. There might even be some funding available from the Provincial or Federal governments.
We could partner with some other major attraction to develop tours – say 3 days in North Bay, 3 days in Ottawa – a perfect holiday for our European or Asian clients. We might even have to put on daily flights to Ottawa to bring our guests to our Park. Our Economic Council may have better ideas, but you can get the gist of this proposal.
The one big advantage we have over a place like Corkscrew is that the land cost is off the table as one of the partners is putting that up as their share in the venture. This is to be a money-making venture. It also provides many good jobs for professionals as well as the worker bees. And it is jobs we need in North Bay.
A 500 hundred acre Otter Lake Park can only become more important and attractive as our world is quickly filling up with people. We may even have to change the name to Otter Lake Sanctuary, but that is for the future.
So what do you think, Mayor and Council? Is the idea worth consideration?
In the meantime, I will keep buying my Otter Lake lottery tickets.