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Ministry invests in polar bear park (1/02)

By Katherine Thompson Nelson Plans are underway in Cochrane to develop a live polar bear exhibit that could open as early as July 2003, says J.P. Ouellette, community development manager with the community development corporation in Cochrane.

By Katherine Thompson Nelson

Plans are underway in Cochrane to develop a live polar bear exhibit that could open as early as July 2003, says J.P. Ouellette, community development manager with the community development corporation in Cochrane. "We hope to hire an architect by the end of January, and have a shovel in the ground by the summer of 2002," Ouellette says.

The facility is expected to cost about $4.5 million to construct, he says.

The project has received $2.05 million from the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp., which is administered by the Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.

Cochrane Mayor Don Genier views the project as a boost to tourism-related businesses in Cochrane and communities nearby.

"It will be easier to sell tour packages to the whole area - Timmins, Cochrane, Hearst - people will be stopping in our region for an extra day, I'm sure," Genier says. "This would complement the Polar Bear Express," an excursion train which runs from Cochrane to Moosonee.

The new facility will be located less than a kilometre from the train station, which will foster a tie-in with the Polar Bear Express, Ouellette says.

"We know (ridership) has been declining steadily for the last 15 to 20 years," Ouellette says. "Most definitely I think the Polar Bear Express will experience a new surge in traffic."

This project will give tourists a chance to see polar bears. They are very rarely seen from the train, he adds.

According to a feasibility study, "and we think the numbers are realistic, if not conservative," about 40,000 people will tour the facility annually, says Ouellette.

"We look forward to partnering with other communities to bring tour groups up here," Ouellette says.

Efforts will also be made to attract school groups to the facility.

"We hope to attract kids from southern Ontario," Ouellette explains. "Kids from Northern Ontario go to Toronto (for educational trips); we'd like to reverse that trend."

The project is expected to create 30 jobs for the community of 5,500 residents, and Ouellette expects they will be hiring a lot of students as well as year-round staff. He anticipates indirect job creation as well, mainly in the hospitality industry.

A polar bear habitat, heritage centre and an Aboriginal component are planned, he says. The grounds will have a welcome centre, restaurant and gift shop, as well as a small auditorium and outdoor amphitheatre.

The tentative name for the facility is the Cochrane Polar Bear Conservation and Educational Habitat and Heritage Village, but he says that may change as the project progresses.

The polar bears will have a pool to swim in, and Ouellette says it may have a partition so that people could "jump in the pool and say they were 'swimming with the bears.'" The idea is not unprecedented, he points out. At a zoo in Detroit, Mich., polar bears share such a divided pool with seals.

"The Toronto Zoo is our partner in this endeavour," Ouellette says. "They're going to help us design the facility and train our staff. We honestly couldn't do this without them."

The Toronto Zoo will also assist with marketing and handle the acquisition process.

"There's a great deal of paperwork when you move bears from place to place."

The habitat's first residents will come from other animal parks.

"There are a number of bears in zoos that have outgrown their facilities," Ouellette explains. "This will be a much larger enclosure than they're accustomed to. We've got the space and we're using the latest guidelines for zoos.

"The Province of Manitoba has recently released the most stringent guidelines in the world," Ouellette says. "We are modelling those guidelines and exceeding them by a factor of four."

The bear habitat will have the capacity to handle orphaned cubs as well.

The project will also have a scientific element. A partnership has been formed with York University to allow non-invasive study of the animals.

The heritage village will depict Cochrane as it was in the early 1900s, and plans are being made to relocate the Hunta Museum which is presently operated by an area resident on his own property, he says.

"Jerry (Miller, the operator of the museum) has rebuilt and restored a lot of his things on his own. He has a variety of antiques. He'll start a tractor up or make rope with an antique machine, for example."

The collection is unique and "we really feel that it should be showcased and highlighted," Ouellette says.

He says the Aboriginal aspect would include an authentic reproduction of a Cree village in the period before settlers came to Cochrane.

"The Wahgoshig First Nation (near Matheson) expressed an interest in working with us in creating that component. It would complement everything so well."

Ouellette says he cannot precisely predict the tourism revenue that will be generated by this project, but he is confident it will be a huge draw.

"People are looking for an experience, a cultural experience, and this will go a long way toward providing that," Ouellette says.