Following emergency meeting, MTA will continue operation of Manitoulin Welcome Centre

Welcome Centre in Little Current. Photo by Warren Schlote

LITTLE CURRENT—The Manitoulin Tourism Association (MTA) will continue to operate the Welcome Centre near the swing bridge in Little Current for the upcoming tourist season.

This was the outcome of a meeting, held Monday of this week, between MTA board members and representatives of the six Island municipalities that together form the Welcome Centre’s operations committee and, also together, financially support the building’s maintenance costs.

The meeting on Monday—called by the MTA as an emergency session—was the result of the tourism association receiving an eviction notice last December.

At its November 30, 2018 AGM, the MTA had voted to withdraw from the Manitoulin Welcome Centre Agreement (in place since 1990) and to renegotiate a tenant’s agreement with the Northeast Town. The way the organization is currently structured, there is an operating committee made up of the member municipalities that all contribute per-capita funding to the welcome centre based on their populations. That funding goes towards paying for expenses like hydro, insurance and maintenance. 

MTA receives use of the building essentially free of charge in exchange for staffing the centre for 21 weeks of the year, as well as a $5,000 budget for cleaning.

MTA contends that the agreement, first signed in 1990, is outdated and non-inclusive—there are no First Nations represented in the organization, for instance. The association has also indicated that it wants to move towards more of an online presence to attract the broader tourist base that exists online. 

Northeast Town Mayor Al MacNevin said he had been hoping more discussions would have been taking place since MTA’s AGM in November. 

“We’re perfectly willing to talk with them about what they want to do,” he said. “We were hoping from the beginning, at the annual meeting when they passed the motion to negotiate with us and the other municipalities, that they’d come forward with some concrete proposals,” Mayor MacNevin told The Expositor last week, before the emergency meeting was held.

“The biggest point is we want them to tell us whether they want to continue providing services. And if they can’t, to let us know what they are proposing,” added Mayor MacNevin.

The Northeast Town had issued the MTA a 30-day notice in December to vacate the Manitoulin Island Welcome Centre, leaving MTA and Island municipalities searching for solutions.

“It does complicate things because it means we wouldn’t have a physical space,” said MTA board member Christianna Jones last week. “Hopefully we’ll be able to stay there; if not, it means we’ll have to move and find another space.”

Welcome Centre in Little Current home to the Manitoulin Tourism Association. Photo by Warren Schlote

“We’ve been going back and forth with conversations for a year or so, mostly starting last spring, but [the MTA] had expressed a number of times that they didn’t think they were able to continue providing services per the agreement,” said Mayor MacNevin.

“For us, it was an issue that we didn’t want to find out in the spring if they were not interested when we’ve paid for all the heat and utilities over the winter when they were not doing anything in the space,” he added. “So, our administrative staff sent them a notice to either come and speak to us about their interest for continuing, or to vacate.”

Ms. Jones said discussions within the MTA had already been planned, such as a group visioning session that was to be held on January 19. But Mayor MacNevin said he still felt the town was left out of past discussions.

“MTA expressed issues with the current agreement, and they never gave us notice that they were considering withdrawing from the assignment even though they were given the authority to do so [at the AGM],” Mayor MacNevin said.

“We said it’s not good enough to say, ‘we’ll meet sometime down the road to look at the issues and negotiate a revised agreement,’” Mayor MacNevin added in last week’s interview.

MTA called for an emergency meeting of the Welcome Centre operations committee on this past Monday, January 14, following the receipt of its notice of eviction. All of the member municipalities sent representatives to get an update on the status of MTA and its renegotiations in light of the notice to vacate. 

“We believe it was a positive meeting,” Jocelyn Bebamikawe, an MTA board member and spokesperson who attended the meeting, told The Expositor Monday afternoon. 

“At the end of the meeting, there were action items the MTA has to follow through on. Our intention is to continue providing services as per our agreement at the Manitoulin Welcome Centre.”

Mayor MacNevin said the meeting served as a start to future discussions and also provided some security to the Northeast Town and all of the other municipalities represented on the Welcome Centre’s operating committee.

“They’ve agreed to send [the Northeast Town] in writing a confirmation that said they are prepared to operate this season as per the original agreement and provide 21 weeks of service, and then go ahead and negotiate another agreement as the year goes on,” he told The Expositor following the meeting. 

“Basically, that’s all we wanted—someone to confirm that the agreement would stay in place and that, down the road, we wouldn’t get stuck with the operating costs and no service.”

Welcome Centre in Little Current. Photo by Warren Schlote

Since the overall agreement concerning the Welcome Centre involves several municipalities, any future negotiations will have to involve the six member municipalities across Manitoulin.

“First, we’ll have to meet with the heads of councils to see if they want to be directly involved in the renegotiating, and then start the process of seeing just what MTA wants to change because we still don’t know,” Mayor MacNevin said.

Ms. Bebamikawe said MTA will be going through the original agreement to find challenges and opportunities to enhance the agreement or provide better service. She said those discussions will hopefully happen in the next month or so and acknowledged that the committee members at the meeting agreed about the urgency. She added that transparency will be a key priority moving forward.

“As part of the discussions today, the [Northeast Town] indicated they wanted to be kept abreast of the goings-on, and we will keep giving updates,” she said. “When we are talking about the original agreement, to see where we could renew or revamp things, we will be sending correspondence to all municipalities as well to get their input.”

Mayor MacNevin acknowledged that there is still a great deal of work yet to come before all the issues are resolved, but said knowing what will happen for the coming tourist season is an important first step.

“I think it’s a good result; it just unfortunately required a notice to vacate to get the discussions to take place. We’re definitely just at the beginning of the process,” said Mayor MacNevin.

There are plans for the Welcome Centre’s member municipalities to discuss the MTA agreement before this evening’s Manitoulin Municipal Association (MMA) meeting, January 16. Those discussions are expected to enable further dialogue between the different townships as to their priorities for the future.

Ms. Bebamikawe said MTA’s position going forward is clear—to continue its work with communities around Manitoulin to encourage and promote tourism.

Northeast Town council will decide whether to accept MTA’s intention statement at its next council meeting on January 22, a vote Mayor MacNevin expects will pass. Until that vote happens, MTA will not be forced to vacate.