A tourist trap? I don’t think so.
Last week there was a meeting of Huntsville Council’s Economic Development Committee. Actually, there are only two councillors on the nine person committee, the Chair, Bob Stone and Brian Thompson. And for the record, only one woman on this committee. Justin Trudeau would not be amused!
One of the matters for consideration before the committee was the implementation of a Destination Marketing Fee for tourists who visit Huntsville. You might ask what that is. It is essentially a voluntary tax, imposed by hotels and motels of up to 3 per cent on room rates. These funds would then be used by the municipality, or its agencies, to promote and market tourism. This program was initiated by the Provincial Government about ten years ago and although it is voluntary in nature, it has met with considerable success. For example, the Niagara Tourist Region generates about $15 million a year from this initiative.
All of this may be academic however, because our Economic Development Committee turned the proposal down flat, with almost no one supporting it. At first blush, this may seem reasonable. After all, who wants to ask people to pay more taxes and why should we make tourists pay more money to come here? And what good would more marketing dollars do for Huntsville anyway? All good questions but there is another side to this coin.
Huntsville Council is facing some serious challenges in relation to the financial stability of our municipality and they have not yet come to grips with it. Without some serious changes, Huntsville taxpayers could well be looking at a record increase in what they will be asked to fork over in 2016. This council has embarked on a number of new initiatives which have cost money and they also face critical infrastructure issues, including roads and bridges that need to be addressed. There are also matters left over from the previous council that have yet to be paid for.
Controlling expenditures is obviously very important. That is why council has been going through an exercise lately to examine how to do that and that is why we have seen proposals on the table to look at the viability of town assets such as the Train Station and Muskoka Heritage Place. However, seeking new sources of revenue is equally important to a sound financial strategy and a destination marketing fee for tourists might just be what is required to bring relief to local taxpayers. Here is how that could work.
Currently, our Council is subsidizing the Chamber of Commerce to the tune of $84,000 per year. Much of the Chamber’s work is to market our community. With a destination marketing fee in place, Council could funnel their support for the Chamber through this source, even providing more revenue for marketing, with no cost to the municipality.
Huntsville also financially supports a number of other activities that effectively promote and market our community. The Ironman is another example. This event too, is a major tourist attraction that fills hotel and motel rooms in Huntsville. Council has pledged to back this event for three years to the tune of up to $100,000 annually. For this year’s very successful event, the bill came to more than $90,000. Events such as these could also be funded through a destination marketing fee and save the local taxpayer a bundle of money.
Muskoka Heritage Place costs the municipality $233,000 a year. Funds from a destination marketing fee could not only cover this expense but provide capital dollars to update the facility and provide new attractions that would bring tourists to our community. And the list goes on and on.
Huntsville is now a world-class tourist destination and like many other regions in Canada and other countries, a tourist destination fee is an important tool in maintaining and initiating first class attractions that make people want to visit and spend money. It would not be a slam dunk. It would, as in the case of other regions such as Niagara, require the cooperation of our hotels and motels. But Council has the weight to have a serious influence on that and it is certainly something to be seriously considered.
The decision of the Economic Development Committee will come before Council this month. There is no question that there are two sides to this issue. However, at Council the matter will be decided by nine elected officials. They are the folks responsible for the financial well being of Huntsville. They must weigh carefully the pros and cons of this initiative and decide whether this potential new avenue of revenue is something that would benefit the taxpayers they represent. To simply accept the recommendation of a committee comprised primarily of well meaning, but unelected individuals, without a very close look at both sides of this story, would be a big mistake.