Travelling motorists have been using what is now known as the Mount Baker RV Park for rest and recuperation since 1925. That was when the City of Cranbrook bought a piece of sumptuous green space off the CPR at the end of Pooley (15th) Avenue, and opened the Cranbrook Municipal Auto Camp, moving it from its original location (started in 1923) near what’s now Rotary Park.
That same year, 1925, Western Canada’s largest outdoor swimming pool was opened in what is now called Baker Park, right next to the Auto Camp.
The pool is no longer extant, although the outline of its foundation can still be seen in the grass. The Auto Camp, however, remained a pleasant part of Cranbrook for the rest of the 20th century, and well into the 21st.
READ MORE: The Cranbrook Municipal Auto Camp
This park, one of the most unsung of Cranbrook’s green gems, was an immediate success when it opened to tourists in 1925, and remains so today. The most famous of its campers, Hollywood legend Joan Crawford, who stayed there in June, 1950, with her dog Poochie, described it as “truly an ideal spot.”
But 96 years later, the Mount Baker RV is facing its future.
A city report shows that the park’s infrastructure needs major repairs to the tune of an estimated $1.3 million. The City generates $28,000 in income yearly from the park, which is typically operated by a third party contractor. City administration has recommended that the City of Cranbrook not operate the park for the 2021 season, and to develop a public process to solicit ideas for future use of that space.
To be clear, whatever happens with the RV Park does not include the adjacent Baker Park, which will not be part in any discussions of proposed future use.
At City Council’s regular meeting, Monday, Jan. 18, this recommendation from City staff successfully passed a council vote. The City will not operate the Mount Baker RV Park this coming season, and will be taking suggestions from the public as to what will become of the space.
The Mount Baker RV Park labours under the same problems as other parts of the wider downtown core — basically, the infrastructure is decrepit. Infrastructure ages, and needs to be replaced. A fact of life. As well, like other aspects of Cranbrook culture, society has changed faster than some of our institutions can keep up.
Take hockey, for example. Twenty years after the arrival of the Kootenay Ice, Cranbrook, small to begin with, found itself too small a market for the WHL. It was doable in 1998, but in 2018 it was not (the WHL left Cranbrook for this and other reasons, of course).
The world has changed around the campground too. What is now the RV Park started off life as the perfect spot to pitch a tent beside a Ford touring car, and, as the years passed, for tents, campers on pick-ups, even a tent trailer, and so into the era of recreational vehicles.
But needs and expectations have changed for the big RVs and their operators. There are pages of reviews on camping and touring websites, where users list what they think the park needs, and what they love about this little park. The big land yachts of today and their operators require pull-through sites, up-to-date plug-ins, sewer lines, washrooms, dog facilities, good wifi. More trees, and more fencing to block the sounds of traffic from 2nd Street and 14th Street, which have just gotten busier over the years.
Tourists are less likely to strike out into the city once parked — the economic benefits are shrinking as the vehicles get bigger.
Renovating the sites to accommodate the big RVs of today would likely result in fewer sites. And over the years, having lived near the park for most of my time in Cranbrook, I have noticed fewer and fewer tenters (I hasten to add that that’s not a science-based survey).
In short, one might say the Cranbrook Auto Camp has become too small for the motorists of today.
As well, there is the conundrum of always having to find a private contractor to operate the park.
Even so, my first vote, as a taxpayer, would be to keep as much of the park as possible for camping. Centrally located campgrounds are rare and getting rarer, as we are seeing. They are exquisite green spaces that enhance the vibrancy of a downtown, in tangible and intangible ways.
But it seems clear, that even with a complete overhaul of the sites, our downtown campground, serving visitors to Cranbrook for almost a century, will soon be a thing of the past, like so much else of our culture that’s been evaporated by a changing society. So it goes.
So, what to do with the park? Seeing my first vote — to keep the campground — is likely moot, a suggested housing development along the lines of what was built several years ago in the northwest quadrant of the space, on top of the old ball diamond that was there.
However, the part of the campground beside 14th Avenue, through which Joseph Creek runs, should be preserved and made part of Baker Park beside it.
With files from Jim Cameron/Janus, Cranbrook Townsman, 2016