Regional economic development officers prepare for another strong tourist season

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Municipalities invited to join adaptation study, signage project

MANITOULIN – Economic development officers (EDOs) across Manitoulin and in the townships of Sables-Spanish Rivers and Killarney have reached the second application stage in a FedNor funding proposal to cover most of the costs of a study into adapting to a surging domestic tourism demand during the pandemic, as well as unified signage to enhance visitors’ experience at attractions and amenities.

“It was identified as an issue for (nearby communities) that 2020 was a strange year and we had a lot of local tourism—from Ontario, mostly. A lot of these attractions were overwhelmed and we wanted to set us on a course to be more well-prepared for 2021,” said Marcus Mohr, community development and outreach co-ordinator at the Municipality of Central Manitoulin.

Several municipalities in this region are members of a group called Manitoulin-La Cloche Economic Development Officer Network, which meets monthly to discuss issues and opportunities across the constituents’ area.

A subcommittee of that network has been working toward addressing tourism needs since November 2020. The subcommittee ultimately submitted an application through FedNor, the Canadian government’s economic development body for Northern Ontario, with Central Manitoulin serving as the lead applicant.

Communities and businesses have expressed their need for expertise on how to prepare for another year of significant growth in tourism visitors, including accommodations, amenities (the infrastructure tourists use such as RV services and washrooms) and signage.

The subcommittee members hoped that this report would help their communities find ways to ensure travel remains COVID-19 safe, does not lead to local conflicts and mitigates any potential negative impacts of tourism growth on communities, residents and the environment.

The study also aims to identify gaps in the area’s tourism capacity and address those in ways that could apply across the area.

It estimated the total project would be $120,000, of which $40,000 would be for signage costs and $80,000 would be to cover the consulting fees for the tourism study and its report.

Of this total, the group has asked FedNor to cover $54,000 (45 percent), has asked Destination Northern Ontario to become a partner and also contribute $45,000 through its budget process (due in April), and for participating communities to contribute the final 10 percent, or $12,000.

Based on a survey from last year, 10 communities in the area have expressed interest in applying for this FedNor funding. These include the Town of Gore Bay, Municipality of Killarney, Township of Billings, Town of Northeastern Manitoulin and the Islands, Sheshegwaning, Wiikwemkoong, Assiginack Township, Municipality of Central Manitoulin, Township of Tehkummah and Township of Sables-Spanish Rivers.

If all 10 communities take part, that would mean a nominal cost of $1,200 per community. If more join the effort that per-community funding may reduce further.

“There seems to be excitement around the project. Everybody saw the amounts of tourists that were here last year, so they realized a need for something to be done for 2021 because we don’t (expect to) see any change in these sorts of travel restrictions happening in 2021,” Mr. Mohr said.

He added that the group sought to partner with Destination Northern Ontario because it has its own existing signage program and this would afford an opportunity for a unified branding strategy across the Northeast.

Mr. Mohr could not estimate how many signs the group would be able to secure for the $40,000 budget, given the variation between sizing and the type of sign each community requests. He said each community would get access to a minimum of $2,000 worth of signage and the leftover funds in that category would go toward tourism hotspots in need of better signage, as would be identified in the report.

If a community has a unified signage design strategy already underway, they will be allowed to continue that signage rather than following the tourism adaptation strategy’s recommended design.

“We will give them a toolkit and best practices for how to proceed. It’s going to be made for this area,” Mr. Mohr said, acknowledging that the funding is somewhat small for signs but will enable planning for future expansions.

Destination Manitoulin Island (DMI), the destination marketing organization for Manitoulin Island, has been working on an Island-wide branding initiative in recent years. It remains one of the priorities in its future planning document.

DMI director of tourism Shelba Millette has recently also taken up the post as EDO for Killarney, Assiginack and Tehkummah, but said she has not taken a direct role in this campaign because it was underway before she became EDO for those communities and she did not want to be in a conflict.

DMI has agreed to be a partner in this strategy and Ms. Millette said she supported the idea of a cohesive, cross-Island concept and appearance for its branding.

“We always think anything that promotes tourism is a positive,” she said. “We will do as much as we can to contribute but (DMI’s) role may be more of people doing lobbying on behalf of the project.”

A part of the campaign is to improve information sharing, both through signage and digitally. Mr. Mohr said the digital component is still under consideration but may involve ensuring tourism partners have up-to-date and accurate information shared online and through apps, as well as training people on the continual maintenance of their digital presence to ensure the information is appropriate.

He added that signage still has relevance in the age of digital technologies and virtual guides, especially when it is presented in a format that can be understood by people of diverse backgrounds and knowledge levels. This is key to making the Manitoulin tourist experience inclusive of all individuals.

There will be a rather short turnaround time if the study gets funded. Mr. Mohr said he hoped to see the survey complete and signage underway by June 2021 at the latest.

Tourism-related business operators in the area can contact Mr. Mohr at the Central Manitoulin municipal office if they seek further details. He said information sharing will roll out to communities if and when FedNor approves the funding.

At its March 2 council meeting, the Township of Tehkummah’s council voted against joining the initiative. As of press time Monday, three of the potential participating communities had given the green light to join, said Mr. Mohr.