EDITORIAL: Was Port Alberni’s decision on trains the right decision?

For two years, we have been hearing about how much the train and mill are draining public coffers…

How badly do supporters of McLean Mill National Historic Site and the Alberni Pacific Railway want to see these two attractions continue in the Alberni Valley?

For two years, we have been hearing about how much the train and mill are draining public coffers. Two years’ worth of a McLean Mill Society has only served to muddy the waters, as the arms-length society is still struggling to figure out how to run one of Port Alberni’s main tourist attractions.

City council finally took a stand by separating the two attractions and shuttering the trains for the year so they can figure things out.

For longer than that, residents—including those who have proclaimed that they have never taken the train nor visited the mill—have complained about tax dollars going toward these attractions. Is it coincidence that as people became more vocal in their scorn for these historic attractions, funding was cut, programs such as Tin Pants Theatre, special trains and even the Beaufort Gang faded away and fewer people showed up?

READ: Staff steamed over McLean Mill closure

The reality is that heritage attractions rarely make a profit as stand-alone entities. Many have to have some sort of subsidy, whether it’s federal, provincial or municipal grants. This is not exclusive to Port Alberni, it’s a reality across Canada. And yet other communities, other provinces have heritage attractions that people visit and governments support.

Since 2000, Port Alberni has had a national historic site—McLean Mill. That means people outside of Port Alberni recognized it nationally for its historic significance as a steam mill to Canada. The JJ Logging Oldtime Logging Show is the only one of its kind in Canada, portraying a way of logging that began disappearing in the 1950s and 1960s but is no less important in the 2010s to a city that made its name from forestry.

Knowing that other attractions also require financial assistance to operate doesn’t mean the city should open the cash drawer and look the other way. The city has been struggling for the past few years to figure out the full financial picture of the steam train and mill, and a drastic step such as this was necessary, if risky.

Shutting down the trains for a year could spell the end for this attraction, despite city council saying it’s only temporary. The steam mill was shut down two seasons ago and there are no plans to fire it up again for 2019, if ever.

Our community needs to decide whether these attractions are important enough to keep them operating, from a heritage as well as tourism view. Those who think it’s time to mothball both the train and mill have had their say; it’s time for supporters to speak up and let the city know how they feel.

Otherwise we will have lost the steam train and a national historic site for good.

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