‘New era’: NOTL council approves motion to hire consultant for future tourism strategy

The future of Niagara-on-the-Lake tourism remains unclear due to COVID-19.

This file photo showcases the number of tourists who come to Niagara-on-the-Lake in a normal year for the town’s many festivals. The town has previously had more than three million visitors in a single year. 

Niagara-on-the-Lake’s town council approved a motion at their Aug. 25 council meeting to begin working toward developing a tourism strategy.

Lord Mayor Betty Disero brought forward the motion to have the town facilitate a request for proposal (RFP) to obtain a consulting firm to develop the strategy.

“There’s one thing that (COVID-19) has taught me throughout all of this and that is we are entering into a new reality, a new life and a new era,” Disero said. “We need to plan, in my opinion, how we move into the next era or the next 20 years of what this town wants to do with respect to tourism.”

Highlighting the different resident groups which have formed in recent months to address sustainable tourism in the town, Disero said there wouldn’t be so much interest from locals to do things or take over issues if a clear and complete plan was put forward.

Disero also indicated that through the town’s strategic plan, tourism is one of the major pillars of economic development.

“I believe that we need to have a tourism plan because, as the motion says, we are a mature destination; we need to look at how we want the town to look,” she said.

The tourism strategy would not be in the hands of council or town staff, but rather a consulting firm would be brought on to engage all stakeholders to create a document of what people’s feedback, vision and needs are. Then, the findings would be put out for companies to bid on, and a secondary consultant would create and deliver the strategy.

Interim chief administrative officer, Sheldon Randall, agreed with council that the town doesn’t have the expertise in-house to develop such a project, while adding that the process could be quite large and similar to the Official Plan.

“The engagement is huge,” Randall said. “It’s town-wide, it’s touching all the same people (as the Official Plan). It’s just more focused on tourism.”

He added that a strategy probably would not be completed until the third or fourth quarter of 2021.

Stakeholders involved in the process would include residents, the NOTL Chamber of Commerce, Parks Canada, the Municipal Heritage Committee, the museum, representatives from the wineries, retail services, hotel and Airbnb operators, groups such as the Virgil Business Association, tour operators and much more.

Coun. Erwin Wiens said it’s important to involve the farming community as they’re often forgot about, but they also compete with cyclists, tractors and visitors parking their cars on the side of the road to have lunch in the fields.

“In 10 days’ time or less, we’re going to start seeing large harvesters and tractor trailers running down the road and parking on the side of the roads trying to get loaded, all of this (while) competing with cyclists (and) cycle tours,” Wiens said.

Infrastructure was a common theme among councillors, specifically bike lanes that connect from tour companies to wineries, addressing the congested traffic and lack of parking.

Coun. Gary Burroughs supported the motion but had concerns.

“First of all, to develop a tourism strategy when we don’t know what the post-COVID world is actually going to look like is premature,” Burroughs said.

Coun. Allan Bisback called the strategy a great opportunity to put the municipality in a direction that they know they’re working toward.

“My sense is, as a resident and as a councillor for two years, it seems we’re always playing catch-up on infrastructure,” Bisback said. “I think we need to lay an investment plan out for the future on what kind of infrastructure do our residents, our visitors expect in years five or 10.”

Coun. Clare Cameron emphasized the need for this to be a long-term plan as the existing tourism sector’s only strategy right now is to survive 2020 and a similar goal is likely in place for 2021.

“We have to be very sensitive to the fact, at least at this moment and probably for the next 18 months at least, the current tourism operators and businesses in our community are beyond having gone through a bloodletting; they’re in absolute crisis,” Cameron said. “I think this would be the most awful moment to try to get into a short-term strategy, so if we can make clear that this is about that long-term vision.”

Disero said creating a strategy would be a tool for the town and council to use when creating future budgets or infrastructure plans for the next 20 years.

Council unanimously voted in favour of the motion with an amendment to have the project funded in two phases. The first phase will come out of the 2020 operating budget, corporate studies reserve, and the second phase would be considered part of the 2021 budget deliberations.

Source: https://www.niagarathisweek.com/news-story/10147130–new-era-notl-council-approves-motion-to-hire-consultant-for-future-tourism-strategy/