Chi-Cheemaun requires major Ontario government marketing push

Plainly stated and measured by a 22 percent decline in non-commercial use over the five-year period 2006-2011, the Chi-Cheemaun ferry service is in serious trouble. (This year’s passenger car/light truck traffic is at least stable and even slightly higher than that of 2011.)

Because of the iconic significance of the Chi-Cheemaun to Manitoulin Island, this is not at all good news for our area. The Chi-Cheemaun helps enormously to position the idea of Manitoulin Island in the minds of many residents of southern Ontario as the Northern terminus of Ontario’s unique Great Lakes ferry service.

At last Wednesday’s Manitoulin Island meeting, organized by the consulting firm the Owen Sound Transportation Company has hired to address both the causes of and solutions to this unprecedented decline in ridership, it was clear from the large number of Manitoulin people who attended the session that there is a recognition of the importance the Chi-Cheemaun bears to Manitoulin Island.

The elephant in the room, however, was the decision by the Ontario government to close down its Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, abandoning its Toronto to Cochrane rail passenger service altogether (this service ended, in fact, last Friday) and to sell off its remaining assets: the train tracks from North Bay to Cochrane, rolling stock and locomotives and rail freight business in addition to its bus services in the same corridor and the telephone and Internet services in the Northeast corner of the province.

No one has suggested that the Chi-Cheemaun ferry service was scheduled either for sale or for radical changes.

But it is a fact that the Owen Sound Transportation Company, the operator of the Chi-Cheemaun, reports to and draws its operating subsidy from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, the same ministry that axed the Northern Ontario Transportation Commission.

The consultants who conducted last week’s interactive session at the South Baymouth ferry terminal indicated that, at this time as well as traditionally, the Owen Sound Transportation Company has an extremely small budget for marketing the Chi-Cheemaun.

This will be due in part, no doubt, to the dynamic that exists between the provincial government and its ferry service: the government has always expected the Chi-Cheemaun’s management and board of directors to keep the operating subsidy as small as possible. (This is the difference each year between the amount of money the ferry service derives from ticket sales and the actual cost of operating the service that year.)

The Owen Sound Transportation Company’s management is a small one (in fact one key person was not replaced a year ago when he retired) and the traditional relationship between the provincial government and the ferry’s operators does not lend itself to accumulating a large budget for marketing.

Yet this is precisely what is needed, together with a careful analysis of the fare schedule.

There were ample suggestions at last week’s meeting as to how the tariffs on cars and trucks using the ship could be adjusted in ways that could make the service more attractive but, more importantly, the government of Ontario must take an active role in helping to reposition a voyage across Georgian Bay on the Chi-Cheemaun as a vitally important Ontario experience.

The Chi-Cheemaun is an Ontario government asset, just as are (or were) the component divisions of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission. (In fact, until fairly recently the management of the Chi-Cheemaun also reported to this Commission.)

The difference is that, sadly, the passenger train aspect of the Ontario Northland Railway (ONR) had grown redundant and too expensive to subsidize.

The Chi-Cheemaun is unique, like the Polar Bear Express (Cochrane to James Bay) portion of the ONR that will continue to be operated by the province, in part as a tourist attraction and in part because it is the only land link to Ontario’s sub-Arctic shores.

Ontario, hopefully, will also play an important role in the rethinking of the Chi-Cheemaun ferry service and, whether it’s through the Ministry of Tourism or the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, the province will recognize that the service must be repositioned in the minds and hearts of both Ontarians and visitors to this province and take a proactive and leadership role in this process.

The importance of Toronto, Niagara Falls, Stratford, Ottawa and Fort Henry in Kingston is constantly being reinforced by government promotions.

The Chi-Cheemaun, one of only three ways to and from the great Northland of this province and a unique experience in and of itself, must be given its own moments in the sun when Ontario chooses what it will highlight in its ongoing promotional tourism campaigns in the years ahead.

The consultant said it all last week when he referenced the tiny marketing budget the Chi-Cheemaun has available to it.

Not only is the necessary augmentation of this budget important but so is the recognition by the Ontario government that the appropriate promotion of its ferry service will not only benefit the service itself but will also encourage more people to come not only to Manitoulin Island but to Northern Ontario and, southbound, use the service to reach Tobermory, Bruce County and southern Ontario.

The people of Manitoulin, the Chi-Cheemaun’s management and the Ontario (and federal) governments must see this as an opportunity, rather than a setback, and use it creatively to once again make the Chi-Cheemaun a must-do adventure and actively involve the multitude of creative minds and organizations on both sides of Georgian Bay to assist with ideas and solutions.