Historic Hat Creek Ranch had its best season in terms of visitor numbers in 2016, with more than 21,000 people stopping at the site. It is the first time that visits have exceeded 20,000 in a year, although the site’s manager, Don Pearse, admits that while he is very pleased with the total, he is a little concerned about capacity at the site’s restaurant.
“Capacity there is limited,” he says, with a maximum of 105 people at any one time. He adds, however, that there might be some relief when a new gift shop building, currently under construction beside the restaurant (which also serves as the admission gate), is completed in time for next season.
The new building will remove the gift shop from above the restaurant to beside it, and provide 1,350 square feet of interior retail space, with a 500 square foot covered porch at front and a 250 square foot one at the back. There will also be more washrooms, and the gift shop will serve as the admission gate as well.
“The restaurant will be an actual restaurant, with no through traffic,” says Pearse. While there is not at present a viable solution for increasing the capacity of the restaurant, he adds that the former gift shop space above the restaurant could be used for hosting small groups of people.
“It would be difficult to get food up there, but not impossible.”
Another positive from the past season is that bus tours to the site were up, although Pearse says that the trend seems to be for the groups that stop not to tour the site. “They stop for lunch or a snack, and visit the gift shop. The bulk of the tours are using it as a bathroom stop.”
However, bus tour bookings for next year are “very strong” so far, with Pearse adding that most bookings come in January and February. “We also have some weddings booked, as well as several groups from the U.K.”
The new gift shop—which will start to be framed in the next few days—is not the only change to the site. The board of Historic Hat Creek Ranch recently decided to re-brand the site, which will now be known as Historic Hat Creek.
“It was decided to drop ‘ranch’ because we really don’t talk about or interpret that aspect of the site,” says Pearse. The focus at Hat Creek is the gold rush and Victorian/Edwardian period of the site’s history (1860–1910), and ranching did not begin in earnest there until after that time.
“It was built for the gold rush, and we focus on the gold rush trail and the site’s founders,” says Pearse, noting that many visitors—especially those from Europe and Australia—expected to see vast herds of cattle. “It will get rid of the ‘Where are the cattle?’ question we hear several times a day.”
The re-branding will make the site more regional, incorporating the entire Hat Creek Valley from Ashcroft to Clinton. “And it will allow us to incorporate the First Nations interpretive site into the brand more easily.” Representatives from Historic Hat Creek will be meeting with the Bonaparte Band on November 8 to discuss the interpretive site with them.
“We’d like them to get more involved with it, and we would like to tap into their resources and employ more of their people. We want them to help us run it, so would like to hear from the band and from community members.”
The QuestUpon virtual reality walk through the site, which launched near the beginning of the season, was not as successful as had been hoped, but Pearse admits that there were a number of glitches to be worked out, and that it will be promoted more next year. “I really like the program, and it’s great to have more of these in the area.”
The board is now looking ahead to March 2019, when the current Heritage Site Management Agreement (HSMA) with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations expires.
“We have two more full operational seasons to go, but the discussion is going on now, because some site agreements are up next year.” The ministry has said that it will not renew the HSMAs, and prefers a lease agreement. “Right now they’re saying they would like us to be self-sufficient, with the government not contributing money to the site.”
Pearse argues that this model would not be viable at Historic Hat Creek. “It’s impossible if this is to remain a heritage site. To keep it heritage, we must get provincial funding. The buildings are, on average, 100 to 150 years old, and require consistent maintenance, not just a coat of paint every few years and a good dusting.
“One building is leaning because of the wind, and you get boards peeling off. Maintenance requires investment. To get the money ourselves to maintain the heritage buildings would mean reducing other things.”
Pearse is not in favour of a declining funding model, in which funding is gradually reduced each year. “We’re lobbying for a 10 to 20 year plan that includes small increases for inflation.”
Overall, however, Pearse says it was a good year at Historic Hat Creek, and he hopes that Canada’s 150th birthday next year will bring even more people to the site. “There are extra marketing efforts for Canada 150, and local tourism associations are promoting it strongly. And the Lonely Planet website has named Canada as the place to visit in 2017.
“I’m certainly pleased that more people are coming. And we’re getting good word of mouth.”