Special Council Meeting With Tourism Stakeholders — What Would Success Look Like?

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By John Francis

The Municipality of Northern Bruce Peninsula held a Special Council Meeting on September 16 at Tobermory Community Centre. It was billed as a Planning Workshop, an opportunity for stakeholders to discuss Traffic Management Issues. The public was able to attend on Zoom; public comments were relayed to the panelists in real time.

Evergreen Innovative Strategies provided meeting facilitator Peter Politis, and also managed the microphones and Zoom connections and curated/relayed the comments. It all seemed to flow very well.

All five members of Council attended, as did CAO Peggy Van Mierlo-West, Community Services Manager Ryan Deska, Clerk Cathy Addison, Deputy Clerk Tessa Swanton, Bylaw Enforcement Chief Carol Hopkins, Fire Chief Wilf Barnes, Treasurer Teresa Shearer, Chief Building Official Wendy Elliott and Public Works Manager Troy Cameron.

Other stakeholders included Sean Liipere and Ethan Meleg from Parks Canada and Scott Davidson who is Acting Superintendent at McGregor Point Provincial Park, nominally in charge of the five Provincial Park properties in MNBP. Bill Sullivan attended on behalf of RTO7, the provincial tourism organization for Grey, Bruce and Simcoe counties. John Grandy represented the Peninsula Bruce Trail Club. Barb Fisher is Manager of Bruce County Community Futures Corporation. She announced that the Bruce Peninsula will be the federal government’s economic development priority for the next five years. 

Susan Schrempf is CEO of Owen Sound Transportation Company which operates the Chi-Cheemaun ferry. Paul McGrath attended on behalf of Bruce County Economic Development. Representatives from Saugeen Ojibway Nation and Neyashiinigmiing (Cape Croker) were attending via Zoom.

Municipal CAO Van Mierlo-West and Mayor Milt McIver started the meeting before handing the microphone off to facilitator Peter Politis. The CAO posed a simple question to kick off the proceedings — In the light of everything that went on this year, “what would success look like?”

The meeting went on all day but they kept cycling back to that question.

Politis suggested that the day be divided into three sessions, exploring 

•barriers (what’s not working), 

•bridges (what is working) and 

•solutions 

He asked Councillor Smokey Golden to kick off the first session. She talked about the 2020 crowding problems and whether or not it would be a one-off. “I don’t think so — a quarter of the country’s population is within driving distance.” There is a lot of anger among residents this year but that has been building for years. Some of it is unreasonable — cottagers don’t realize that the restaurants and other services they enjoy are reliant on tourism. But in general, we are seeing too many people in too small an area. This is not just frustrating for locals, it’s also frustrating for the visitors; they can’t get to the places they came to see so they go anywhere they can get to the shore.

Cathy Addison suggested that crowding problems have been building for years, but this year, “when the gates opened, things exploded here”.

Mayor McIver asked the Parks Canada representatives how this year compared to the pattern of the last 5-7 years. Ethan Meleg explained that when capacity limits were implemented at the Grotto, it resulted in a steady reduction in turnaways. This year, turnaways were up 25% at the Grotto (which was operating at 50% capacity) but up 125% at Halfway Log Dump parking lot even though capacity was not reduced. Generally people come to the most popular spot first, then the next, with spillover effects from there on down. Observationally, there seem to be more people from Quebec this year; also there are probably more daytrippers from the Greater Toronto Area. Those increases are staycation-driven to some degree but the Bruce Peninsula has gone viral on social media. The crowds may dwindle somewhat next year but they’re not going away.

Mayor McIver asked Scott Davidson what Ontario Provincial Parks would be doing to solve crowding problems at their properties. In particular, will anything be done to limit the numbers at Lion’s Head Provincial Park? “I don’t need an answer today but I wanted to log the question.”

 Davidson replied that Provincial Parks are looking at strategies and partnerships; he noted that the parking for Lion’s Head Provincial Park is on municipal land, so a multi-agency response is required. He promised to keep communications open.

Councillor Megan Myles reiterated the CAO’s question — what would success look like? A safe and positive visitor experience driving a vibrant and successful business community? Well-informed visitors enjoying well-managed attractions as defined in a sustainable tourism plan? How do we get there? We have been waiting 5 or 10 years for a new management plan. We need to know what our responsibilities are and then figure out how to fund them.

Politis posed the question “Are more tourists good or bad?”

Councillor Golden answered him. “Before all the fires and garbage on shore most people thought of tourism as positive”. This year things were extreme and more of a division among people. “Why are our taxpayers becoming the end provider of services for all these visitors?” We will be facing big issues — drinking water, sewage, garbage — that are out of the reach of a tiny municipality. We can’t put a cap on things the way Parks can.

Deputy Mayor Debbie Myles stressed that a managed solution is needed at Lion’s Head Provincial Park to limit numbers there, but noted that “every time the feds cut back it puts more pressure on the municipality”.

John Grandy sympathized, pointing out that the Bruce Trail has similar issues. “As a volunteer organization with hundreds of volunteers out maintaining the trail, overuse is a major issue in many places but especially Lion’s Head.” What’s more, the Bruce Trail message is not registering with daytrippers. We need to find a way to influence them, to educate them about fires, trampling, camping, garbage, toilets etc. The major problems are on provincial and federal land which complicates the search for solutions.

Politis wondered at the lack of input from Neyashiinigmiing and SON. Councillor Myles replied that we can’t just expect them to tune in – we need to initiate an intentional process and sit down with them. She admitted that the outstanding litigation colours relations.

After a coffee break, the meeting switched from barriers to bridges — what is working?

Councillor Myles pointed out that paid parking can control the number of people in an area.

Ethan Meleg noted that Parks Canada has had some success with highway billboards about the need for reservations at the Grotto as well as facebook and twitter posts. Scott Davidson noted that Ontario Parks cut back the social media feeds for overcrowded parks and tried to promote the less busy ones.

Councillor Myles suggested a different strategy. “People aren’t going to formal channels for information,” she explained. “They see a photo on Instagram and head out.” We need to reach out to some of these Toronto blogs; keep the information up to date. We need to find a way “to intercept them before they get in their car and start driving.”

“We need to focus on high value visitors,” Councillor Myles said a few minutes later. For example, “it turns out cyclists spend more money…” We need a sustainable tourism plan, but there is no tourism manager in our local area and there is nobody developing that social media campaign.

Bylaw Enforcement Officer Hopkins put 2020 in context. In previous years, August long weekend was the top. This year the numbers flooded from the moment the gate opened. They wanted to get away from the city; they brought everything with them and left lots behind. It was especially bad at Little Cove which was grossly overcrowded this year. Barricades and parking restrictions were only partially successful because it pushed all those day visitors elsewhere. The “Know Before You Go” page was an asset. The Moore St changes were successful but still there was an overabundance of people.

Politis summed that up — we need to recognize that this is not an easy challenge — the infrastructure is not there to support the number of tourists that are coming.

Mayor McIver agreed, stating that MNBP needs to work with stakeholders, “not just keep building parking lots”.

Politis asked “Do we need to maximize tourism or control tourism?”

Hopkins noted that people don’t seem to understand “full”. We need more advertising or a more collaborative effort to get that information out there.

Councillor James Mielhausen expanded on that — there are two types of tourists, he said: those that stay 3 or 4 days and day trippers. The daytrippers bring everything they need — gas, food, everything — and then leave. We’re overrun with people but we’ve only got one gas station open.

Community Services Manager Deska agreed that with garbage, porta-potties and such, daytrippers are increasing the costs to residents. He suggested that anyone from Toronto is used to paying good money for parking. But it’s more than just costs, he continued. There was no parking space available for boaters to get to their boats on Labour Day weekend — parking lots were full of people using them for barbeques, generating no money for the municipality but taking opportunities away from residents.

CAO Van Mierlo-West agreed that there is more to it than charging for parking. Daytrippers are being very creative about parking; snowplow/schoolbus turnarounds are being used for parking and camping, cottage roads are being blocked by parked cars.

Public Works Manager Cameron noted that many cottage roads were not designed for any parking at all, let alone parked cars plus pedestrians.

Councillor Myles cut to the chase. Dealing with today’s problems on an operational level is necessary, but finding a strategy to reduce next year’s problems is much more difficult. Everything’s full every weekend in July and August — how do you turn off the tap? The municipality is taking some leadership — this meeting for example — but we’re tiny. We need help from the county, the province, the feds. What’s our plan moving forward? We need meetings at least monthly this winter to organize this. Who is willing to put money on the table?

After lunch, the group assembled to talk about solutions. Many different perspectives emerged.

Highway closures and road tolls were discussed and discarded as either illegal or impractical.

Councillor Myles suggested more paid parking and that it be reservable in advance.

Councillor Golden said that people come here for a trail, for water access, for wide open spaces. We need to spread out the problem, manage it.

Councillor Myles disagreed sharply, opposing opening any new areas until the existing ones are managed properly.

John Grandy suggested that shuttle buses would solve some of those problems.

Susan Schrempf pointed out that managing things properly involves hiring people and that gets harder every year. There’s no affordable place for them to live. University students can’t afford to live here.

CS Manager Deska connected that to community building. We don’t just want to “do” tourism, we want to capture wealth from our visitors and attract more people to our community.

Mayor McIver noted that a process for regulating Short-term Accommodations is underway but that we need a dedicated person to get tourism management rolling. That was supposed to be Ryan Deska, “but in fairness to Ryan, we got him to do other things” instead. But it’s time for Council to look at the sustainable tourism document again. “There are some ideas there that could help us to move forward.”

Councillor Golden stated her position that the municipality must avoid sole responsibility for tourism. Advisory and working committees must be set up at arm’s length with other stakeholders as full participants.

Mayor McIver referenced a longstanding argument between Councillors Golden and Myles. How do you have an economic development officer who is at arm’s length from tourism in a community where economic development consists mainly of tourism?

Councillor Myles suggested that funding for a tourism manager could come from revenue generated by paid parking or other tourism revenue. We own the land that backs onto popular provincial parks and we are the only level of government that can levy a tourism tax. We have two choices, she continued — we can pay at the front end with a manager or pay at the back end with enforcement.

Mayor McIver did a brief wind-up before Council convened to pass a bylaw and adjourn. He said the meeting had provided the municipality with an opportunity to explore a number of things we probably should have been doing already, He expressed his personal support for creating a Tourism Advisory Group.

There seemed to be consensus among attendees that a Tourism Advisory Group should be brought into existence as soon as possible.