Back on target: Wildlife Federation finds a way to keep its clubhouse

Perry Bergson
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Prince Albert Wildlife Federation president Doug Erickson and Red Ribbon Catering owner Ben Stanford pose after supper on Tuesday evening in the federation’s building. A unique partnership between the two may offer new hope to the building’s long-term viability.

Thirteen months ago the Prince Albert Wildlife Federation’s building was potentially going up for sale.

What a difference a year makes.

On Tuesday evening, the federation hosted its first-ever showcase social to give area businesses a look at the facility and to munch on the news of an innovative partnership they’ve struck with Red Ribbon Catering.

Federation president Doug Erickson says the showcase social was held to allow the business community to see what the facility is capable of in its large hall that can seat up to about 250 people.

“This can be a great venue for them to attend for their own functions,” Erickson says. “Basically just branding the facility is what we’re looking to do. So few people even know that it exists. With its availability and now having in-house food service ... we’re just optimistic that by having that continuity and consistency that we’ll develop that reputation as a go-to place. It will help the hall in terms of its longevity as far as being self-sufficient.”

The building is actually the second one that the club has owned on the site. The first one was destroyed by fire in the 1960s, with the present building largely constructed by volunteers in the late ’60s. The small mortgage for the materials that had to be purchased was burned in 1975.

With a strong membership, if problems cropped up with the building, they could often be dealt with by a volunteer tradesman who used the facility.

Times changed.

“Costs have escalated,” Erickson told the crowd of a couple hundred. “Money got tight more than once. User groups bickered and disagreed on things and in general things were in a state of disarray.”

In December of 2012, the Daily Herald reported that struggles with fundraising and overtaxed volunteers had the federation musing about the possible sale of the 40-year-old, 7,200-square-foot building. The clubhouse consists of a banquet hall on the main floor, a shooting range in the basement with a small lounge on the second floor.

A new board featuring some veteran directors and some newcomers took over in January of 2013. They immediately decided that a way would have to be found to make the building sustain itself.

A partnership with Red Ribbon Catering was discussed throughout 2013 with an official arrangement reached in October that made Red Ribbon Catering the facility’s official caterer and responsible for hall operations.

There is also a revenue-sharing agreement in place.

Red Ribbon Catering’s Ben Stanford, one of the top chefs in Saskatchewan, saw some real advantages to a partnership with the club.

“It’s kind of a two-step thing where I don’t have to build, buy and do a full-time commitment,” Stanford says. “I have other jobs as well so this part-time relationship works well.”

Stanford knew the kitchen was older but said it was bright and clean. There are plans in place to make improvements in the future.

A new commercial dishwasher has already made a significant impact.

Anyone interested in booking the building for an event can contact Red Ribbon at 306-922-2755.

As the partnership was being discussed, an increased visibility in the community and hard work by the executive led to more wedding bookings. At the same time, that hard work led to all of the annual fundraisers becoming much more profitable.

The results were astonishing.

Erickson took on the top job at the start of 2012. He is asked if he’s at all taken aback by how quickly things have changed.

“Moderately surprised but I knew that it could be done,” Erickson says. “What we’re building on now is a plan that we can lock in for success with Red Ribbon to carry this thing on for many years. If it gets busy enough, it will be an actual full-time business. Right now it’s still a service club with a building that ran out of volunteers to run its functions so it made a deal.”

Erickson talks a lot about branding the facility. He says a survey of P.A. residents found that 80 per cent didn’t know about the clubhouse. Of the 20 per cent who did, 80 per cent of them thought the building was for private club functions only.

Erickson noted that four longtime Prince Albert citizens asked him for directions for Tuesday’s event to a facility that’s been in operation for decades.

(For the record, the hall is located north of Prince Albert off of Highway 2. Drivers can turn at the new RCMP detachment building, head east to the stop sign, and take a left turn north for a short ways to the building’s lane. The drive is less than five minutes from the bridge.)

“We believe that branding works,” Erickson says, adding that Daily Herald coverage in 2013 helped. “Every person that I ran into shortly after any of the articles came out in the newspaper made comments like ‘Things are really coming alive out there’ or ‘I think things are going really well for you guys.’ And of course they are.”

The club finished the year in the black but the finances are daunting because the fixed costs are so high. Adding in taxes, insurance and utilities, the tally just to keep the clubhouse running is more than $33,000 per year.

That doesn’t include repairs or upgrades, which Erickson says had been ignored for years in some cases.

They also wanted to give the federation’s overtaxed volunteers a chance to relax.

“Our whole drive behind this was to be able to have this facility without having to get on the phone to get members to come out and clean up after, without needing to have members bartend, without having to have members wash dishes, without having members come out the next day to knock tables down,” Erickson said. “We couldn’t do it that way anymore.”

The membership of about 400 has been consistent over the last decade. But the struggle to keep the building afloat took a heavy toll.

“A lot of those members, they’ve lost interest because there were so many problems here trying to keep this building alive. Times have changed. If the Wildlife Federation was in a rented facility somewhere, the last thing that would ever consider building is a clubhouse. But we have it, we own it, we have to do something to change with the times.”

The partnership with Red Ribbon is seemingly a good start.

Stanford says demand exists in Prince Albert for a private facility with its own parking and catering.

“People are wanting and willing to spend a little more but there has to be some value with it,” the chef says. “If you’re looking for a private facility where we can create a menu for you, where we can use our skillset -- because we have a lot of experience here -- we create an event.”

Attention will also have to be paid to the building itself.

Eavestroughs and downspouts were installed for the first time last year and other work is needed.

The two-year plan for the main hall includes installing gas fireplaces, converting the upstairs lounge into something functional and restroom renovations.

The long-term plan could see the firing range in the basement modified into a law enforcement training academy.

“That could take some time because there is a lot of research and study that has to go into that to determine whether our facility will even accommodate it,” Erickson says.

The 860-square-foot suite in one corner of the building now houses new caretakers who have proven to be great additions.

While the long-term goal is for the building to pay for itself, the more realistic plan is that some fundraising money will go into the improvements.

Membership is $50 per year for families or individuals. Of that $50, half the proceeds are shared with the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, which offers members liability insurance while hunting or fishing, along with an accidental death policy. The remaining is split between general operations and newsletter costs, leaving about $14 per member for the club.

With 400 members, that’s $5,600, or 17 per cent of the fixed costs on the building.

As a result, the club hosts four fundraisers a year, including the showcase social, its annual awards banquet on Feb. 8, its popular fish fry on April 26 and its first-ever golf tournament on June 2 at Elk Ridge golf tournament.

Stanford sympathizes with the federation because he says the story is familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a club.

“There are always seems to be a core of people who get called on to do the volunteering again and again and again,” he says. “Although, yes, you need to raise funds, and yes, you need to support your facility, you join an association to be part of that association. If your primary focus is to join the Wildlife Federation, you want to do wildlife things, not fundraise, fundraise, fundraise. I think a lot of clubs have that same problem.

“Now when someone in the Wildlife Federation wants to get involved in an activity, it’s not a fundraising activity; their economic plan is different from their social plan.”

Erickson says change was fundementally important.

“If we stagnate, we won’t survive. If the building sits idle, it won’t survive.”

Organizations: Prince Albert Wildlife Federation, Daily Herald, Prince Albert RCMP

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, Elk Ridge

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