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In Neepawa, What’s the Attraction?

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

NEEPAWA, Man. — What do we want to be known for? It’s an important question every community must ask itself. The Town of Neepawa used to be known for its flowers and each summer, thousands would come from across North America for the Lily Festival. With all those eyes on the town, everyone did their part to help the town live up to its title of “World Lily Capital.” There were publicly-funded lily beds and privately-maintained yards and bus and carriage tours took visitors around to admire the beauty. The concrete deadline of the festival pushed everyone to get the town ready for the attention.

While it was concentrated on one weekend, the Lily Festival played a major role in the town and area’s tourism promotion. The town’s office, which was open close to full time in the peak tourism season, acted as a de facto tourism office. The festival’s advertising extended across the province and even if people didn’t come to the festival, it promoted Neepawa as a tourist destination.

This will be the third summer without a Lily Festival and while the town remains beautiful, without the pressure of a showcase event, it is slightly less so. Which brings us to a hot topic of conversation around town — perpetual care at Neepawa’s Riverside Cemetery. Compared to the abundance of flowers we have seen in previous years, the cemetery today looks a shadow of its former glory and it’s mostly to do with economics.

The Cemeteries Act defines “perpetual care” as, “the preservation, improvement, embellishment, and maintenance, in perpetuity and in a proper manner of lots, plots, tombs, monuments, or enclosure, in a cemetery or of compartments in a columbarium or mausoleum.” However, in Neepawa, the local bylaw outlining perpetual care goes further, saying, “Perpetual Care at the Cemetery, excluding the Cremation Garden, shall provide an increased level of individual grave care and maintenance, which shall include the planting and care of flowers on the grave. Each grave receiving perpetual care shall have flowers planted and care of the grave shall be as determined by Council from time to time.” In 1956, perpetual care cost $250 and now, under a bylaw revised in 2015, the cost is $1,500, which isn’t a lot of money to care for a grave, including the provision of flowers, in perpetuity

Providing perpetual care is an expensive undertaking. The 2017 budget set aside $243,300, or three percent of total expenditures, for cemetery care. This is more than the town plans to spend on fire services ($225,844), road maintenance ($87,600) and economic development ($267,643). The budget doesn’t outline how much the town collects in interest from the perpetual care fund, but the town is expecting to make $47,000 from all of its investments in 2017. Interestingly, the 2017 budget included no planned expenditures for tourism.

In Neepawa, the cemetery is more than just a place to honour the community’s deceased, it’s also been promoted, both officially and unofficially, as an attraction. This isn’t only because it’s the resting place of author Margaret Laurence and Lewis Hickman, the only victim of the Titanic disaster buried in western Canada, but also because of the flowers.

In recent years, rising costs have made it hard for the staff to keep the cemetery looking as beautiful as it has in the past. It has come to the point where the town — the residents and administration — have to make a decision. If the cemetery is to be promoted as a tourist attraction, it must be restored to its previous beauty, something about which the town can proudly boast.

However, if residents decide that the cemetery is to serve only to mark the resting place of the community’s forefathers, then it’s time to re-examine how perpetual care is provided and it must be done in such a way that the proceeds from the fund cover the actual costs of the service. The half-way reality seen today serves neither goal well.

It’s time for the community to take an honest look at what we are doing when it comes to tourism and develop a cohesive plan for both funding and implementation. If the cemetery is a tourist destination, it must be treated as such and like any initiative, it must be analyzed to determine the number of people it attracts and the associated economic spin off to the community. The status quo can’t continue much longer — it’s making no one happy.

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