People in town who are keen followers of political activities in NOTL know there is a big gap between the business community and the residents. It seems to be the same in many places in the world right now — never was the USA more divided, never was there more disagreement between liberals and conservatives in Canada and never did Europe have such a dysfunctional union.
We as NOTLers should do everything in our power to get unified and start making decisions based on what benefits our future, and not based on political party ties and mindsets that belong in the past.
We need big picture, long-term ideas that can solve the problems we’re seeing as a result of a changing town.
NOTL has added more than 6,000 new citizens in less than 10 years. Fifty years ago NOTL was mainly a farming community. Life was hard but also pretty laid back. Then the province decided to open the Shaw theatre in town. The Pillar and Post and the Prince of Wales were the first two hotels and Inniskillin, Reif, Konzelmann and a few other wineries opened around the same time. Tender fruit was still the name of the game, but the wineries, the hotels and Queen Street, with its quaint old houses, started to gain momentum. Slowly over the years our little NOTL converted from a farm town to a wonderful tourist destination.
Until about 10 years ago, there was no major influx of people into town, but that changed with all the new developments. The quaintness, the wineries, the Shaw, the parks and last, but not least, the huge improvement of Queen Street initiated by Si Wai Lai made our NOTL attractive for many people from the GTA. All these people came because our lifestyle provided an awesome environment, great cultural activities and fantastic restaurants. All these features are tourist-driven. The exact numbers of visitors to town each year is not known, but it’s estimated as many as 2.7 million people come to our lovely town annually. And they keep the ball rolling.
Nearly everything we do in NOTL is in some fashion a tourist-driven event, activity or expense. We all need to come to terms with this fact. But how we treat this fact is the big question and also the big challenge.
We all have to be happy at the end of the day and compromises have to be found to keep every interest group happy. But if we stop nurturing our tourism, the restaurants will close, Shaw will have fewer visitors, the wineries won’t be successful any more, property values will drop sharply and this town will end up like many other tourist-driven towns all over the world, whose heydays are in the rear-view mirror. It would be misguided to follow their lead.
This isn’t to say we need to fill the town with short-term rentals. It’s obvious those businesses are contributing to a hollowing out of Niagara, which makes few happy other than the property managers, owners and people finding cheaper accommodation because the competition drives the price down.
The real solution lies in creative, long-term plans for smarter tourism. ie. How can we keep people coming in and spending money in town?
The stakeholders in our town are the residents, the B&Bs, the hotels, the retailers, Shaw, the restaurants, the farmers, the wineries and all other non-tourist driven businesses. These stakeholders need to become unified and need to make NOTL the best town to live in, while creating a sustainable, long-term future for NOTL.
At the risk of offending longtime locals who have always cursed the crowds on Queen Street, we need tourism, and lots of it. But we need to approach it in new, creative ways. We need to vitalize the winter off-season, and we have to reduce the wear and tear on our town in the high-season.
We need to improve our infrastructure for visitors, and even more for the residents who call NOTL home. The town must be promoted in a new, smarter and more sensible way.
If all stakeholders in town can get behind the idea that we are a tourist town, we can be successful together and start to maximize revenues that help support all of us. We can’t afford to make the kinds of changes we the residents want without having money in the kitty.
What Lord Mayor Betty Disero presented to council recently was her idea of a 10-year plan. We can start debating if hers is the right plan or not, but at least someone came forward considering the big picture. Being positive and open to ideas not only allows us to dream bigger and find more practical solutions, but it forces us to dream. Good job, Betty, for stepping up to the plate and saying we need to think smarter.
The problem we face in thinking big is sticking with a mindset that has been holding the town back. For example, it’s alarming and tiring that one of the first comments from Coun. Garry Burroughs was a concern about the parking at Fort George. Is that really the issue? It happens too often that boards and committees kill potentially great ideas before they get off the ground by presenting roadblocks as finite problems, instead of seeking solutions to those roadblocks. If we can’t get behind a big-picture plan, then we will never find a solution for the details of any plan.
But first we need to dream big and get on the same page. After we decide on some good ideas, then we can define the goals and objectives and find creative ways to make it happen.
The beauty is there are millions of dollars available for all sorts of programs, and we should be focused on getting that funding.
Why not get together and have a dreamer’s workshop? Once the dreams are dreamt and agreed upon, we can condense them to a manageable size and then have a “make it happen” workshop.
It must be understood that no tourism means no money. We need income beyond parking meters and bus licences, which as they are currently structured only seem to hurt the businesses in town.