The floating boardwalk across Swan Lake offers views of rare turtles, eagles on the hunt and the splendor of nature, all cocooned away from the nearby hustle of busy roadways and shopping centres.
But its boardwalk is in desperate need of replacement at a price tag that’s a king’s ransom for a non-profit – $700,000 at least. The nature house that educates some 60,000 youth each year has aging displays designed from when their parents were kids.
Like any non-profit society with land to steward and infrastructure to maintain, extra cash is always in short supply. But after nearly 40 years, the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary Society is taking a new tack for fundraising and has shaken up its internal management structure.
In September, Swan Lake eliminated its executive director position, and in its place hired a marketing and communications manager with the sole job of hunting out grants and raising the profile of the sanctuary.
The municipality of Saanich provides the lion’s share of its operational funding – $310,000 in 2012 – but to upgrade key attractions like the 800-feet of boardwalk, it needs to find grants and generous donors.
“We couldn’t exist without Saanich’s help, and that means our programming can’t fail. But we needed a different plan. An executive director tends to be a spender – not one that necessarily increases revenues,” said Erik Lund, the board chair for the Swan Lake society.
“We need to get more aggressive with finding funding, particularly for the boardwalk. We need to raise the membership and profile of Swan Lake, we need to improve the website and (nature house) displays. We need to do things so the place looks as successful as it is.”
Lund stressed that eliminating the executive director position wasn’t a signal the society was in dire straits, but a change in strategy on how to fund capital projects. School and adult programs are fully subscribed, he said, and they’re looking to add programming specifically for seniors.
“Is Swan Lake solvent? Absolutely. Could we do better? Definitely,” he said. “By August we had two grant applications in the works. We should have had 20.”
Swan Lake saw funding from donations and grants fall off between 2011 and 2012. The organization drew about $60,000 from a reserve fund to help finance the refurbishment of what is known as the Martelli House, a house near the nature sanctuary now rented to the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team. The society has four rental properties in all, and all need repairs.
“Like all organizations they have to be creative and nimble and find ways to increase revenues, so it can promote what an amazing place it is,” said Coun. Susan Brice, the Swan Lake board liaison for Saanich council.
June Pretzer, the Swan Lake site manager and one of seven employees – the site also has about 250 volunteers – said Swan Lake remains a natural jewel for the city, but infrastructure is starting to fray at the edges. Staff also push wheelbarrows around the wetland to keep the trails maintained.
“We could use equipment. We don’t even have a tractor,” she remarked. “We’re all pretty strong here, but there is a limit.
“There is absolutely a lack of funds for the amount of staff and 150 acres. We really do need to find more funding.”
Donations and grants funneled into Swan Lake are producing results, Pretzer noted. After pollution and abuses lasting into the 1970s, the lake itself is seeing its water quality improve and Blenkinsop Creek is now seeing small numbers of spawning salmon.
“We have fish here. We’ve improved the water quality enough that salmon can spawn,” she said.
“There is a lot to be done here, but it is an urban jewel. To have access to such a unique and wonderful natural place in the middle of an urban area is quite special.”