A community’s culture is what makes it a vibrant place – where residents enjoy living and where visitors find delightful ways to spend their time. But it can be challenging to turn a town’s cultural assets into economic opportunities.
“In many communities, there are a lot of cultural assets but no one has identified them as commercial tourism products,” explained Glen Loo of St. Clements Group, a consulting firm that was involved in the development of Huntsville’s Cultural Strategy. “Huntsville is different, though. It’s been really proactive in following through on its cultural plan and that’s why we wanted to prototype the SPOTLIGHT project there.”
The plan is to take a process that Loo has been using to successfully revitalize downtown business areas and apply it to combine and enhance the efforts of local cultural, tourism and economic development groups. In short, that means finding underutilized or little-known cultural elements in our community and turning them into money-making or job-creating opportunities.
“Often, we find the economic development people and the tourism people and the culture people all working in individual silos and we want to get them working together,” said Loo.
It’s not often that business consultants approach a municipality with an idea that will create opportunities at little or no cost, and Town staff jumped at the opportunity.
As a municipality with limited resources, when someone with outside expertise knocks on your door and offers to help you grow a sector so that it becomes a more tangible economic driver in the community, it’s something we’ll take a serious look at.
Scott Ovell, Town of Huntsville’s Community Development Officer
“Huntsville has been on the leading edge of municipal cultural planning for communities our size since 2009,” added Teri Souter, Manager of Arts, Culture and Heritage for the Town of Huntsville. “We’ll be able to leverage what we discover through this process to increase our momentum in the sector and, except for some of our time and some meeting space, we’ll be able to do it without impacting our operating budgets. Any pilot project is uncharted territory, but we are excited for this potential.”
With approval from the Town’s General Committee and its Arts, Culture and Heritage and Economic Development Committees, the project has the go-ahead to proceed. Town staff will create a small steering committee – eight to 10 people – from stakeholders within the cultural, tourism and economic development sectors for a three-day session to identify the top 10 cultural opportunities for this project.
Those opportunities will be assessed against five criteria do determine if they are:
- Commercial – will they create employment and draw people into our community to spend money?
- Authentic – will they use our existing natural, cultural and historic resources without needing major new capital or infrastructure?
- Sustainable – will they contribute to rather than degrade our natural and historic resources?
- Educational – will they give visitors insight into our history and ecology, and an appreciation for our unique sense of place?
- Experiential – will they be an engaging experience for visitors and users?
Once those opportunities are identified, the committee will be looking for people to champion those projects. “We’ll need that grassroots buy-in,” said Ovell. “People who are willing to be ambassadors for what we are trying to do. We also need to figure out how to bridge the gaps that can hinder success – funding is one of them. We’ve started talking with Muskoka Futures about it and the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport has expressed an interest in participating in the process.”
Loo talked about the potential for a Dragon’s Den-like funding process if there are multiple groups who are interested in spearheading an identified opportunity. “We are also talking with some government agencies about seed money and we’ll see if we can get these things going.”
These aren’t going to be huge projects requiring thousands of dollars in capital and many years to implement, however. Rather, the committee will be looking for small initiatives to boost existing cultural assets that will begin to deliver results within 12 months.
The exact results of the project can’t be known – it will depend on what the steering committee identifies as the top cultural opportunities – but it will be a valuable exercise regardless of the outcome.
We can’t continue to do the same things and expect different results. This is new and unknown but there is very little risk and a lot of potential reward.
Teri Souter, Manager of Arts, Culture and Heritage for the Town of Huntsville
One of those rewards is simply an outsider’s view. “I think one of the benefits of having a bunch of outsiders come in is that local people sometimes think ‘oh, that’s not so special, we’ve been talking about that for 100 years,’ but we can look at it and say ‘that’s really great,’” said Loo. “And it works the other way, too – you may think (a cultural asset) is really good and an outsider might not actually care.”
Loo said his company enjoys taking on projects that will make a difference in small or rural communities. “I always loved working in Huntsville and in Muskoka. I think this has a 95 per cent chance of working out really well.”
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