Cochrane's polar bear habitat gets last last-minute reprieve: Facility will remain open while funding sources explored.

AuthorKelly, Lindsay

The Canadian Polar Bear Habitat in Cochrane will remain operational for at least another year while its board of directors tries to find additional sources of funding to keep the centre open.

The facility currently houses four polar bears, serving as both a research centre and a tourist attraction.

It was in danger of closing permanently after a financial review of the habitat, conducted by town council in November, demonstrated its growing burden on the town of 5,000.

Taxpayers annually fund the centre to the tune of $400,000--the equivalent to roughly five per cent of an average resident's tax bill --and in its 15 years of operation, the centre has yet to turn a profit.

The habitat was "born out of a desire to provide a regional tourism 'product' that would help provide some diversification of our local economy, through tourism, to offset the unpredictability of the boom-to-bust cycle of our natural resource-based local economy," the report notes.

"Regardless of what the recommendations have been, they simply have never materialized, despite a healthy dose of wishful thinking--also known as 'If you build it, they will come.'"

According to the report, the habitat was envisioned by the town's community development corporation (CDC) to capture some of the tourist traffic travelling on Ontario Northland's Polar Bear Express train from Cochrane to Moosonee.

But after Ontario Northland discontinued train service between Cochrane and Toronto in 2012, the habitat experienced a "significant reduction in gate receipts," the report notes. The CDC has since disbanded, and the town took over operation of the facility.

Most of the current tourist traffic is considered "accidental" in nature--visitors who are in town for other reasons and tour the habitat as an afterthought.

Feedback from hoteliers indicates few of their guests stay for visits to the polar bear habitat; in fact, the bulk of its clientele comes to the Cochrane area for its snowmobile trails.

In November, after releasing its report, council publicly floated the notion of closing the habitat permanently, holding a pair of open houses to allow members of the public to share their opinions.

Council received overwhelming response from individuals and organizations in favour of keeping the habitat open, including wildlife protection group Zoocheck, and researchers at the University of Toronto and York University.

Through the recommendations of a consultant, HR&A Advisors Inc., the board is now...

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