Algonquin Park’s Portage Store is changing ownership after 47 years

Algonquin Park Photo Courtesy of The Portage Store/Facebook

December 31 marked the final day of the Miglin family’s tenure as the Portage Store operators. The store, all dark-painted wood with colourful canoes and kayaks stacked next to it, stretches along the shore of Canoe Lake, an access point in the southwest end of Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park.

Sven Miglin and his wife, Donna, have operated the canoe and kayak rental store since 1975. It’s a family business, Miglin, 71, explains. His daughter and son-in-law became operating partners 10 years ago. But in late December, Miglin got some bad news. Ontario Parks, which owns the building, would not be renewing the family’s contract.

“I’ve got 47 years worth of history,” Miglin says. “My kids were partners in the company and now they’re looking for jobs. It’s pretty stressful.”

Founded in 1937, the Portage Store, which is located on provincial park land, falls under the jurisdiction of Ontario Parks, meaning it owns the land and building. The Miglins were stewards, paying rent to the government agency—approximately half a million dollars annually—and sharing a fixed percentage of sales—the store produced a ballpark revenue of $3 million a year.

“They’re the landlord. And they were responsible for the building,” Miglin says.

The Portage Store contract is awarded every 10 years. When the contract expires, it’s opened to the public to submit bids. Despite nearly five decades of experience, this year, the Miglins lost.

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“It’s not just put one number down. We’re into the hundreds of pages,” Miglin says of the bidding process. “They ask all sorts of questions. And the problem today is that the evaluation now is done in secrecy. I mean, the day after I put in my bid, they refused to tell anybody, including me, how many bids went in. They don’t want anybody else to know anything about how they made their decision. For anybody that lost, you say, why not me? I mean, what was the rationale? It’s like playing a hockey game and not knowing what the score is. I can’t tell you how many goals we got and who you played, but they beat you.”

In an email, Ontario Parks said that when assessing the bids it looked at how an individual would meet certain required deliverables, as well as how much revenue would be returned to the agency. Three ministry staff evaluated and scored the bidders’ answers and then used a weighted formula to determine the highest-ranking bidder.

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On January 24, Algonquin Outfitters, which operates three locations within the park and several locations in nearby towns, announced that it had been awarded the Portage Store contract.

“The opportunity to improve and enhance the visitor experience in Algonquin Park has always been our focus. Some of our initiatives include education and raising awareness in important areas such as Indigenous culture, canoe and camping ethics, and respect for Algonquin’s wildlife and natural spaces. This will help us embrace, preserve, and share the unique history and experiences of Canoe Lake and the Portage Store,” the company said on Instagram.

Despite the formulaic nature of the bidding process, Miglin admits he’s confused by Ontario Parks’ choice. “Algonquin Outfitters now owns every concession in the park. I had those concessions back in the ’80s and Ontario Parks took them away from me because they said monopolies are terrible. So why would it have changed?” he says.

Moving forward, Miglin is looking at retirement, but his daughter and son-in-law are still weighing their options. “They could run something very similar in the area,” Miglin says. “We’re experts in what we do.” Or maybe they’ll try something new. “In other words, they don’t know.”

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