More than five months after the Friends of Historic Hat Creek Ranch Society (FHHCRS) announced that the site was in a state of uncertainty, the future of one of B.C.’s most popular heritage destinations remains unclear.
On Oct. 1, Historic Hat Creek updated the public with a lengthy Facebook post indicating the society had made almost no progress since announcing in May that the site managers would soon enter into a request for proposals (RFP) process to determine Hat Creek’s future.
The post has been shared more than 350 times and describes the lengthy ordeal that has kept Historic Hat Creek in limbo.
“After more than a year working with Heritage Branch trying to secure a contract for future years, we have made little to no progress,” reads the post. “We have complied with all the requirements asked of us from the provincial government, and yet they are only willing to extend our existing contract one year.”
After moving to an RFP this spring, the society has yet to finalize future plans, since the results of that RFP deemed neither of the two site applicants fit to manage Historic Hat Creek.
“This process began in June and proposals were due to the Heritage Branch by July 25,” reads the Facebook post. Both the Bonaparte Indian Band and the FHHCRS submitted proposals on time, but after multiple delays in announcing a successful applicant, the society discovered on Aug. 22 that they had failed to meet the minimum requirements to continue operating the site.
Since both proponents were deemed unqualified to act as the site operators of Historic Hat Creek, FHHCRS board chair Robert Sharkey wants to know “Why is Heritage Branch trying to get us to stay?”
The B.C. government cancelled the entire RFP process and changed the requirements to operate the site, he said, noting that he doesn’t understand why, but accepts the decision.
The site has been operated and managed successfully by the FHHCRS for over 15 years, but the society functions under a legal agreement with the Province of B.C. to provide its tourists with the opportunity to explore original buildings frequented by travellers during the Gold Rush of the 1860s.
“We’re under a one-year conditional extension to the existing site management agreement, and because of the way the tourism industry works, [with] a one- to two-year horizon… with this one year conditional extension we’ve suffered over $200,000 in lost bookings for next year because we couldn’t commit,” explained Sharkey. “It left us in a state of uncertainty that makes you unstable for the future and has a very negative effect on the staff.”
The government wants to renew their contract with the society, but Sharkey said the problem is that they’re offering yet another one-year conditional agreement.
“That puts us back on track of what I would call a financial death spiral, because we’ll just keep having to turn down even more [potential guests].”
He plans to present the Heritage Branch with a proposal that will seek to keep FHHCRS managing the site.
“That proposal will contain some elements that shall remove the uncertainty, give us stability, and the core of that is a five-year agreement,” said Sharkey. “As a business operation, you have to have certainty and stability to staff and operate properly, so we, of course, would be seeking a standard and nominal five-year agreement to be the site managers, similar to Barkerville, Yale… all the other ones.”
Sharkey said the board isn’t looking to cause trouble or point fingers by voicing their concerns over the process.
“We’re going to take the high road,” he said. “We hope that the public takes notice. That’s all we can hope.”
The Facebook post generated an overwhelmingly positive and supportive response, said Sharkey. “We’re hopeful the government takes notice.”
The post was made by Hat Creek’s live-in manager, Don Pearse, who reports to the FHHCRS. As an employee of the society that subsequently reports to the board, Pearse and the 40 employees who work alongside him will be directly affected if the site closes down in the future, said Sharkey.
The society — FHHCRS — are the site managers and are responsible for negotiating the continuation of their role with Heritage Branch. The FHHCRS board is essentially elected from the membership of the society, Sharkey explained. There are seats for local government officials, but in general the board is volunteer-based.
Despite the challenges faced this year, Historic Hat Creek had its best season yet in 2019. “Based on the metrics of number of visitors, number of employees, and revenue: best year ever.”
The contract between Heritage Branch and FHHCRS runs out at the end of March 2020.
“Within the prerogative of the government of B.C. they have every right to choose whoever they want to be the operators of the site,” concluded Sharkey. “However, the site does belong to the people of British Columbia, so they may have an interest in what’s going on.”