Issues of tourism again took centre stage at FocusNOTL’s final council candidates meeting last Wednesday.
There was some rehashing of history over the municipal accommodation tax, which came into effect July 1.
“I was always in favour of doing a (municipal accommodation) tax, built into the tourism strategy,” said incumbent Wendy Cheropita, who has been skeptical of collecting a tax without a plan on how to use it.
Cheropita told The Lake Report in an interview that she heard from constituents who are confused about how to calculate the new tax. She said the town should have implemented a tourism strategy before introducing the tax.
Candidates Tim Balasiuk and Adriana Cater Vizzari are excited about the revenue the new tax will generate for the town. They shared their ideas on how best to use it.
“(The accommodation tax) is important for the tourism infrastructure,” said Cater Vizzari .
Balasiuk said the tax can help build lanes to benefit the town’s bicycle tour businesses.
Incumbent Allan Bisback agreed, saying council needs to take the emotion out of the word “tax” because of its potential to generate revenue that could directly benefit residents.
The candidates took a three-part question asking if the town should have a say in the marketing plan for its tourism sector and whether it should have authority over how many people visit town in a given year.
Cater Vizzari said having “resident engagement is huge” when developing a tourism strategy, but she could not imagine a situation where the town could set precise limits on the number of visitors.
Balasiuk did not address setting limits but said the town’s relationship with Tourism NOTL and the Chamber of Commerce has been fruitful and he’d like to see it continue.
“We’re obviously going to have a say in how the marketing plan is put in place,” he said.
“The town is the brand,” he added.
Cheropita took the opportunity to advance the call for a tourism strategy.
In her ideal scenario, the strategy would be developed with residents and members of the tourism industry.
Bisback agreed that residents should have a role in the direction of the tourism strategy but stressed the plan is still at least a year from completion.
“We can’t say red cars can come and yellow cars can’t. That’s divisive,” he said. “What we can do is create a marketing plan once we know what we want to be when we grow up.”
The four candidates also took questions on short-term rentals, a topic that has come up at nearly every meeting.
All candidates said short-term rentals should collect the accommodation tax, but now only facilities with five rooms or more have to do so.
They were asked if short-term rentals should receive special treatment or be charged regular commercial taxes.
Bisback said the town would have to rezone short-term rentals as commercial to charge them a commercial tax.
“Once you switch a residential lot to commercial, you can’t bring it back, and then you have commercial growth all over the place,” he said.
Bisback also pointed out that the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. levies a surcharge on short-term rentals.
“I would argue that bed and breakfasts, now based on the current assessment, are paying a little bit more than typical residential.”
Asked about the town’s litigation expenses, all four candidates agreed the town has picked the right battles and has worked hard to protect heritage sites from development.
“Some lawsuits are absolutely fights that are worth fighting,” Cheropita said.
But the town needs to clarify its development policies, she said.
Bisback argued that developers know what they’re getting into when they come to town.
“Why can one developer build based on the policies and the parameters and another developer can’t?” he said.
Cater Vizzari said the town needs to be more transparent about the town’s litigation expenses while Balasiuk agreed with Cheropita that the lawsuits were worth fighting.
The crowd groaned audibly when the candidates received a question on the proposed regional roundabout in St. Davids.
As a resident of St. Davids, Cater Vizzari was happy to see the issues affecting her village being discussed.
“Four years ago when there was an election, it wasn’t even on people’s radar,” she said.
She stressed that residents of St. Davids want a walkable village centre that preserves the sense of heritage and community.
Bisback was more concerned about how the roundabout managed to get so far despite the residents’ pushback.
He noted the current council has asked the region several times to halt the project and explore options that better serve the residents.
Cheropita and Balasiuk agreed, citing resident concerns over safety as well.
Voters can watch all the Meet & Greet sessions on the FocusNOTL Election 2022 YouTube page.