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How to fix Niagara Falls? New commissioner has some thoughts

It's been a tough few years for the Niagara Parks Commission, the $80-million-a-year Ontario agency charged with keeping Canada's busiest public park beautiful, while raising its own revenue. Sagging tourism and a soaring dollar haven't helped, but neither has a string of controversies around the commission's stewardship of Niagara Falls.

Enter Fay Booker, a 52-year-old accountant and governance expert from Burlington, Ont., who took the chair at her first meeting on Friday. Ms. Booker, who will have her work cut out for her in steering the 124-year-old Crown agency to calmer waters, speaks with The Globe and Mail's Anthony Reinhart.

What exactly is the problem with the Niagara Parks Commission?

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I don't know if problem is the right word, but there are a number of challenges. There's been a lot of attention on the Maid of the Mist contract, so the question is, were other interested parties given an opportunity to bid, and was due process followed? There are also challenges around finances. We saw a major decrease in tourism from the United States, and we have the passport issue on top of that. Today the additional issue is the Canadian-U.S. exchange.

So there's been a slide in tourism. What is the commission doing about it?

They have done some internal reviews and I would suggest that there be further work done on that. What strengths and opportunities can we leverage to make it a place where Canadians [and not just foreign visitors] want to go?

Speaking of internal reviews, what did you think of KPMG's report on the commission's governance practices last year? It wasn't exactly complimentary.

I've received the KPMG review and it has some information that's blacked out. We need to spend some time really talking about what the governing body is responsible for doing, and then how to fulfill that responsibility. The better the commission is in conducting its job, the better you can motivate your executives to do their best.

The commission's 300-plus paid employees will have to be similarly motivated. What are your impressions of their working culture so far?

So far it's been quite good. All the people I've met are very dedicated to the parks. They are looking for new direction, new vigour, new energy and solutions going into the future. There's no doubt that having a female commissioner who is not from the region [is an issue], but I think we have some new energy coming into the organization.

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Some say too much of the commission's energy, not to mention money, has migrated to commercial operations – golf courses, attractions and the like – at the expense of its mandate to protect the beauty of the Falls. Given recent losses, is it time to refocus?

When you think of the Niagara Parks Commission, the first thing that should come to mind is protection and preservation of the Falls and the natural landscape around the Falls. At the same time, there's a lot of responsibility to pay for that protection. I've got to look at how we do that on a financially sustainable basis.

Aside from ensuring that balance, what are you most eager to accomplish?

I would really like to see a recapturing of the confidence in the Niagara Parks Commission, of the idea that it is here for Ontarians, not just [local] residents, not just tourists. It's our responsibility to look at ourselves and say okay, what have we been doing and what do we need to do to regain the confidence of people?

Did Queen's Park hand you that priority, or did you already have it in mind when applying for the job?

That was already my view. I grew up on a farm, and so we got to have one day in the summer of holiday, and it was all about going to Niagara Falls. It was this awe-inspiring part of Ontario, and I just think we need to recapture that.

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The commission has long been seen as aloof and secretive. How will you deal with this?

I believe that we need to be much more open, and I'm pleased that [the commission] did start opening the meetings back in January. I think we have to look at how we make ourselves available to people to express their views. I don't expect to be aloof; I do expect to be available. We'll have to see how we actually make that happen, and in relatively short order.

Will you take advantage of the free golf?

[Laughs] I do golf, at a club in Hamilton. There are perks for commissioners and I think we have to look at whether they should be there. We have to be very aware that we should not be benefiting from something that is not appropriate. I'm quite happy to make my own situation open, whether it's my commission fees or my expenses. That doesn't bother me.

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