Park Summit: Five questions for Assiniboine Park Conservancy’s Kevin Hunter

Toronto Park People’s Park Summit highlights the successes and opportunities of Toronto’s 1600+ parks. This year’s theme, Inspiration from Across Canada, will bring together park groups making a difference in their urban parks across the country. The 5th annual Park Summit is on March 7, 2015. Tickets are free. This is the third in a series of three Q&A’s featuring speakers from the summit. Spacing is the Park Summit’s media partner.

This week we ask five questions to Kevin Hunter, Director of Marketing and Community Engagement at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy in Winnipeg. Here, Hunter addresses the importance of volunteers to the park, how the Conservancy works, and the park’s exciting growth.

JTG: How did you get involved working in parks at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy? Did you always want to work in parks?

KH: Just like for so many people, my education and career paths have taken many twists and turns along the way. That said, the one constant in my personal and professional development has been the need to contribute to something greater than simply the bottom line, which led me to a career in the not-for-profit field. That need, along with a deeply rooted love for my city as a life-long Winnipegger, is what brought me to the Assiniboine Park Conservancy. This is a very exciting time for Winnipeg with the return of the Winnipeg Jets, the building of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and so much more, but I believe the redevelopment of Assiniboine Park and the Assiniboine Park Zoo will touch the lives of more Winnipeggers than all these other projects combined and it’s a privilege to be part of it.

Conservancies are pretty common in the United States, but we don’t have too many examples to draw from in Canada. Can you describe generally how the Assiniboine Park Conservancy works and its relationship to the City?

The Assiniboine Park Conservancy is a private-public, not-for-profit corporation designed to operate and govern Assiniboine Park independently from the City of Winnipeg. It was created in 2008 in response to Winnipeggers’ passion for the Park and the need for significant focused commitment and reinvestment. The Conservancy is charged with the responsibility of visioning, planning, building, and governing and has developed a strategic plan and business plan to implement the Park’s development and operating priorities. These plans will ensure the vision is realized and that a revitalized Assiniboine Park is sustainable for generations to come.

Starting from scratch, the Conservancy was challenged to not only drive the most significant development in Assiniboine Park in the past 80 years, but simultaneously integrate the operations of over 20 City functions and four distinct not-for-profit entities that had been operating autonomously. The Conservancy is responsible for ensuring that Assiniboine Park is transformed into “one Park” with various attractions, amenities, services and programs.

In creating the Conservancy, Winnipeg City Council approved a Lease and Funding Agreement between the City and the Conservancy. Under this Agreement, the Conservancy has been granted a 50-year lease on the Park and is responsible for all aspects of its operation as well as for raising funds from government and the private sector to support its redevelopment.

In 2013, the City formally approved the Conservancy’s Master Development Plan and announced its 10-year commitment of $50M in funding towards the plan.

I know Assiniboine Park is a huge park with a zoo and conservatory, but what are some of your favourite programs and activities that the conservancy runs in the park?

Although we have countless programs that engage a wide variety of audiences, I would have to say that I have two very special favourites—one on the Park side and one on the Zoo side.

It was almost five years ago now that a colleague of mine and I started talking about some of the new things we really wanted to try to engage the Park with our community and one item was on both of our lists: Movies in the Park. This summer will be the event’s fourth year where we run free double-feature blockbuster movie nights for the first four Friday nights in August at the Park’s Lyric Theatre. It really has become a family favourite in the city. Seeing upwards of 10,000 people on the Lyric Lawn, all from completely different walks of life, enjoying a common night of family entertainment is really something special and a great sense of pride for me.

Within the Zoo, 2015 will be the second year for our very popular Wildest Dreams event designed to give children experiencing significant health or socio-economic challenges, as well as their families, a once-in-a-lifetime evening zoo experience. The families for this event are identified through community partners like Children’s Wish, CancerCare Manitoba, and Salvation Army. This year we’ll be hosting 1,000 people, growing significantly from the 400 people hosted last year, treating families to one-on-one interactions with zoo keepers, up close animal encounters, great food, entertainment and mementos. One of my department’s primary goals is to identify ways to create community engagement, and having the Assiniboine Park Zoo play this kind of a role within our community is an invaluable way to help achieve those kinds of relationships.


How do you work with volunteers who want to get involved in the park?

This has been another huge achievement for the Assiniboine Park Conservancy and a real testament to the community pride that exists for the Park, the Zoo, and what they’ve represented for the City of Winnipeg for now over a hundred years.

When the Conservancy was formed in 2008, Park and Zoo volunteers simply didn’t exist, let alone a full volunteer program. Today, the Conservancy’s volunteer program is a critical part of our operations, with over 212 active volunteers, contributing over 33,190 volunteer hours in 2014. These volunteers play a variety of roles ranging from Park and Zoo Ambassadors, event support, and guide and interpretive help. Our volunteer application process allows them to identify their interests, which gives us the opportunity to match that with the needs of the Conservancy. Our volunteer program is something we take very seriously and we can’t thank the people who donate their time to us enough. We simply couldn’t do what we do without them.

In 2009, the conservancy approved a 10-year $200 million redevelopment plan for the park. What are some of the new developments you’re excited about bringing to the park over the next several years?

Wow, it’s hard to know where to start with this one. The overall redevelopment plan was designed with three key phases, with two of those phases already complete and over $130 million raised towards the $200 million goal.

Phase one, deemed Heart of the Park, included the construction of the Park’s now incredibly popular Streuber Family Children’s Garden and the Nature Playground, a magical space designed for natural play that includes climbing areas, a water feature, snakes and ladder themed elements and rotated horticultural displays. Phase one also included the Qualico Family Centre and Park Café, and the expansion of the Riley Family Duck Pond. These have added a new sense of life and vibrancy to the centre of Assiniboine Park and represented a “quick win” that really demonstrated what the Assiniboine Park Conservancy was capable of achieving through community support.

The second phase was the construction of Journey to Churchill, which opened fully in July 2014. This is the premiere northern species exhibit in the world and a 10-acre construction project in the middle of an 80-acre zoo. Journey to Churchill houses snowy owls, seals, arctic fox, muskox, caribou and, the iconic species for the entire zoo, polar bears. The Assiniboine Park Zoo is now home to six polar bears and will soon welcome Humphrey from the Toronto Zoo as its newest family member. Five of the bears were actually orphaned and/or rescued from Northern Manitoba who would not have survived on their own. These animals were identified by Manitoba Conservation and then brought with our team’s help to the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, which is inside Journey to Churchill as a critical component of the exhibit.

The final phase is to be completed in the coming years and will result in a brand new $70 million conservatory project that will be unlike anything else in the country. The facility will serve as so much more than simply a replacement for the current 100 year-old structure, but rather as a unique community centre that tells the story of our multicultural roots through the backdrop of living, breathing material. The architecture and purpose of this new facility will truly be one-of-a-kind and we can‘t wait to share our current plans with the community in the coming months.


Kevin has spent the last fifteen years focusing on marketing, communications and development within the not-for-profit sector, with early career highlights that include lead roles with the Canadian Diabetes Association, St. Boniface Hospital Foundation and Misericordia Health Centre Foundation. In 2008, Kevin launched his own consultancy firm, The Gravity Group, where he specialized in the development of not-for-profit marketing strategies until joining the Assiniboine Park Conservancy as Director of Marketing & Community Engagement in 2010. Kevin’s background in both marketing and revenue generation in the not-for-profit sector fits perfectly with the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, an organization formed in 2008 to manage the operations of both Assiniboine Park and Assiniboine Park Zoo, to develop and complete a $200 million redevelopment plan and to maximize earned revenue and strategic partnerships.

photos courtesy of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy

This is the second in a series of three Q&A’s featuring speakers from the Toronto Park Summit. The first was with Malcolm Bromley, General Manager of the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, and the second was with Ali Shaver, volunteer with t This year’s theme, Inspiration from Across Canada, will bring together park groups making a difference in their urban parks across the country. Hear more from Ali Shaver at the 2015 Toronto Park Summit on March 7th. Tickets are free.