April 1, 2013, may have had a few good laughs, but one serious matter for Chris Mathieson was taking over the Keremeos Grist Mill and Gardens.
Mathieson took over operations of the heritage site after a decade of rotating caretakers, and 10 years later he’s still at it.
“This was sort of on the outset of what I thought I’d be here for, but I’m glad that I am,” said Mathieson.
“What a difference coming up from Vancouver, to move to a small community and feel a part of it.”
During the tenure of the first of the rotating operators who took it over in 2003, attendance dropped by half over two years, and then it kept going. Building the Grist Mill’s reputation back up took years and things were looking good.
There was no volunteer group either when Mathieson started, as now the heritage site boasts a team that is out every day through the summer, ready in costume, doing activities with the public, cooking on the wood stove and more.
The stove itself was even donated by a couple who visited the site in 2022, as another piece of community support for the mill and gardens.
Matheison has even partnered with the Lower Similkameen Community Services Society to cook dinners for migrant workers.
Everything was looking promising, and then several years of flooding, wildfires and of course COVID-19 hit. “We’re in a very different situation than the one we were in when I came in the door, that’s for sure,” Mathieson said.
“It’s challenging, you know, trying to run a tourism business through fires and floods and pandemics and everything else over the last four years.”
A part of that is the lack of support the site gets from the province to keep the doors open. While the Grist Mill can and has applied for grants for upgrades, it gets no funding for operating costs.
That change came a few years after Mathieson took over as general manager when the government put out the contract to run the site for bids, except it was changed to a lease with the intention of making the Grist Mill, like other heritage sites in the province, more self-sufficient. Letting someone else take over the site wasn’t really an option.
“I’d already been here for three years, at that point I was pretty invested and we were seeing really good improvement,” said Mathieson. “The communities seemed really excited with what we were doing because this place went from practically no programming to community events all the time and concerts and hosting dinners and weddings and things like that.
“How could I not want to stay here and find a way to make that happen?”
Through the years, the Grist Mill has worked to keep the doors open through a variety of means – campgrounds at the heritage site, the popular preserve program and selling season passes.
With the infrastructure grants the site has received, there have been plenty of upgrades and improvements, some visible like the new gardens and structures and others behind the scenes. “Now, we just need people to come back and see it,”Mathieson said.
There’s plenty for the community to look forward to, with the return of popular events such as the Teddy Bear Picnic, the Similkameen Elementary Secondary School’s Grade 12 Prom, the Cawston Elementary School’s assembly, as well as new events such as an additional Fibre Arts Day, a Woodworkers Day and a suite of live concerts that are soon to be announced.
Every visit goes to help keep the site’s doors open for another year, especially when there’s still economic uncertainty and inflation to worry about.
With another three years left on the province’s lease agreement, Mathieson is hoping that a few good years will prove the value of the site, not just to the community but to the province.
“I mean fundamentally my mindset here has always been the idea that we need to prove to the province that this place is cared about, that this place is valuable and because it was seeming the way they were wording their RFPs and the way that they decided they didn’t want a contractor to run it anymore, it felt like they didn’t care about the place.
“So let’s show them that everybody else cares about the place even if they don’t.”
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