A new 10-year lease on the Grist Mill and Gardens in Keremeos gives the operation much-needed stability, says Chris Mathieson, founder of Mathieson Heritage Services, which operates the site.
“We can start to go for markets that require a year or two advance planning, like tour buses, conferences and things like that,” said Mathieson, who until now has been operating the heritage facility on short-term leases.
“There’s a lot of groups we haven’t been able to approach because we couldn’t promise we would be around for the next year,” Mathieson said. “Now, finally, we can do that.”
The announcement of the agreement with the province came on April 10, one day before the writ to call the provincial election.
The Grist Mill at Keremeos was founded in 1877 as a water-powered flour mill. It was designated as a Provincial Heritage Site in 1974 and is the only working waterwheel-powered flour mill in Western Canada.
Under the new agreement, the mill will operate as a Community Contribution Corporation (C3). This designation allows it to operate on a for-profit basis, but it is restricted in some of the ways that non-profits and charities are and it has a mandate to provide a real benefit to the community.
“It’s a good fit for us because it lets us conduct business, but do so in a community minded way,” said Mathieson. “We want to keep doing what the site has always done. We don’t want to change it dramatically. We don’t want it to become a winery, a waterslide or minigolf.”
Mathieson said he will continue to operate as a heritage site, but with the long-term lease, he will be able to finance and promote the site differently.
And that means aiming to return the number of visitors to where it once was – at 25,000 a year – up from the 3,000 it was at when he took over four years ago. Last year, he said, saw about 15,000 visitors.
This year, after the facility opens again on May 5, Mathieson is expecting an exceptional year.
“Fewer people want to cross that border into the States because of everything going on right now,” he said. “And also with Canada 150, there are lots of reasons for people to stay home and do ‘staycations.’ So I think we’re all going to benefit from that this year.”
Currently the waterwheel on the mill is being replaced, as is normally required about every 20 years, Mathieson said. When it’s back and running, there will be on-site interpretation where visitors can see flour being milled.
And, as in recent years, there will be historical presentations, concerts, dinners and other events throughout the summer.
“It will be a great and busy season,” said Mathieson.