Opinion: Why cultural events and attractions are important to Huntsville

Karen Cassian

By Karen Cassian

I sit on the Huntsville/ Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce Cultural Tourism Committee. A friend jokingly asked me why we would be encouraging more tourism in Huntsville when one can barely drive down Main Street in the summer. The reality is that cultural tourists are well educated and yearn for cultural experiences, have higher than average household incomes and outspend non cultural travelers by 61 per cent. They can potentially bring big economic dollars to our town. The Canadian Tourism Commission has established that they come to see heritage, visual arts, performing arts and wine and culinary arts. We already have Algonquin Park, Arrowhead Park, lakes, rocks and trees but to attract more of these cultural tourists we also need cultural attractions and establishments.

Helena Renwick, the Downtown Huntsville Business Association Executive Director (BIA) says that arts and culture attractions continues to be very important in bringing people to the downtown core including the Tom Thomson statue in front of the Algonquin Theatre and the outdoor mural gallery with paintings. There are also smaller art galleries and commercial arts and craft stores throughout the downtown. Further afield we have Lion’s Lookout, Dyer’s Memorial and individual artist studios sprinkled all over the region, to name only a few.

The Algonquin Theatre is one of my favorite cultural institutions in Huntsville. With its location in the downtown core, I often feel that it is the heart and soul of our town, used for everything from musical entertainers, plays, high school and dance performances, and even political gatherings. I have never gotten over the fact that I can leave home and be at the theatre in ten  minutes, park for free and see some fabulous entertainment for half the price that I can in Toronto. The Town recently lowered its user fees to make it more accommodating for smaller groups. The Huntsville Festival of the Arts is one of the largest cultural organizations and one of the biggest users of the theatre.

The Canada Summit Centre, which is primarily a sports and recreation complex, uses the walls of its entrance area as an art gallery and has a constant flow of traffic. Although I appreciate the fact that local artists have an opportunity to show their work there, I am always aware of the smell of chlorine from the pool and it reminds me of the need for a public art gallery in Huntsville.

Muskoka Heritage Place sign 1 dh webRecently, Muskoka Heritage Place came up at council. There is no doubt that it needs to be dusted off and modernized to attract more tourists. When council looked into having a private firm manage the facility, they received feedback from their constituents who were not happy with the solution. The Town has since applied for funding through an Ontario Trillium Grant to acquire a consultant to evaluate and come back with proposals for viable operational models. This process could take a year while it continues to operate, but if a successful model is found, a further grant could be applied for implementation.

Huntsville’s Culture Train Station is a conundrum that still needs to be resolved long term. The Station is an initiative led by four partner organizations: the Huntsville /Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce, the Huntsville Historical Society, the Huntsville Train Station Society and the Huntsville Art Society which runs Signal North Gallery; a community, artist run gallery. In June of 2014 they entered a $1/year for a five year term lease with the Town, to be renewed annually subject to mutually agreeable terms. At a recent council meeting the renewal of the lease was deferred until the summer of 2016. Another not-for-profit group had come forward with a complaint that their rent in the same building is much higher. Three of the not-for-profit groups are run solely by volunteers who come and go, making it difficult to raise any significant money to rent the building. The building’s value, as a cultural asset in the town, is significant and needs to be recognized as such during any talks to resolve the present situation. The Town is responsible for maintaining this Heritage building and needs to come up with money for much needed repairs. If creative solutions are not found, the burden will fall on the taxpayers.

River Mill Park Bandshell - artist's conception

River Mill Park Bandshell – artist’s conception

The Town recently waived fees and approved a letter of intent so that plans for the new permanent bandshell in River Mill Park could proceed. Slated for the spring of 2015, the bandshell will cost approximately $155,000 and will be funded by the Rotary Club of Huntsville, the Huntsville Festival of the Arts, the downtown BIA and the Muskoka Concert Band. The Town has agreed to take on the costs after the structure is built with regard to maintenance and hydro which will cost around $3500 per year. It is going to be a phenomenal cultural asset to our town.

The Huntsville Community Theatre Company rents Chaffey Hall from the town at full market rate. Ownership will soon be transferred to the Lion’s Club from the town for $1 but the Theatre Company will remain the hall’s main tenant for the duration of its 5-year lease which expires in 2019. The Studio Theatre which it is now called, also rents their space to other small theatre groups and to Hunter’s Bay Radio for performances put on by local musicians. The building is a hub of activity. A number of other small theatre groups perform in various venues around town.

To maintain and upgrade some of these cultural assets, our debt-laden Council needs to come up with more creative solutions. I got excited when reading Hugh Mackenzie’s article on the possibility of implementing a destination tax in Huntsville. It is a volunteer tax imposed on hotels and motels of up to 3 per cent on room rates towards funds which could be used by the municipality or its agencies to promote and market tourism. The problem is in the implementation part because it is on a volunteer basis. District Councilor Nancy Alcock states, “I absolutely support consideration of a destination tax in Muskoka. I do believe, however, this is part of a broader discussion which is the need for increased taxing powers at the local level. The Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) recently submitted a position paper to the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing asking them to consider enhancing existing municipal powers as part of its Municipal Act legislation review. We need to do everything we can to support this effort.”

Karen Cassian sits on the Chamber of Commerce Cultural Tourism Committee, the Huntsville Arts, Culture and Heritage Advisory committee and is Vice President of the Huntsville Festival of the Arts. She lives in an energy efficient house in the forest with her husband Brian and two dogs Barnaby and Byron.

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  1. Hugh Mackenzie on

    This commentary is an excellent explanation as to why the Mayor and Huntsville Council need to exercise their influence and leadership to convince stakeholders that
    a tourist destination fee is in the best interests of future attractions and events that will put money in their pockets and also provide new revenue to the Town that will save taxpayers money.

    • Looking to the visitors of the town to solve all of our financial problems is very short sighted. What may at first blush appear easy and like ‘found money’, is actually fraught with problems (not to mention unfair) and potentially damaging to our largest industry. We’ve been down the DMF road already in the past and it was wisely not implemented at the district level.

  2. Pat Sims-Eastwood on

    I just wondered if there was any reasearch on the effect of the destination tax. Do some tourists decide to stay away because of it?

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