From The Mayor's Desk:
Supporting Local Tourism Sector
Doug Lawrance - Mayor, Sioux Lookout
If there were a competition for a local business sector most impacted by COVID-19, the tourist facilities dependent on the American market would be among the winners. Unfortunately to win they did so by losing 95% of their market through the closure of the Canadian border to American tourists. The local sector consists of approximately 30 businesses whose primary business revenue comes from American fishing and hunting tourists. Additionally at least as many local businesses derive revenue from the spin-off, selling a range of products, including: fuel, groceries, boats and motors, furniture, hardware, clothing, restaurant and bar, cleaning supplies, office products, and various other products and services.
Their loss is truly a community loss. And that loss may not be over in 2020 even if the border re-opens before next year’s tourist season. The recovery for this sector will not happen in one or two seasons, for reasons as varied as: the length of the COVID pandemic, fear of COVID contact, border crossing restrictions, fear of loss of health insurance by crossing the border, isolation requirements, and more.
Recognizing the plight of the sector and the ripple effect through the community, Municipal Administration acted to do what they could to assist. In early June the Municipal CAO and Treasurer met with five lodge owners to discuss the impacts of COVID on their businesses. The CAO and Treasurer listened and outlined what the Municipality could offer related to taxes and utilities. The Municipality also committed to have our Economic Development Manager assist through regular meetings and updates with the tourism sector on relaying information from the Province related to any programs, funds, loans, that could assist the sector. In late June the Municipal Economic Development Department held a ‘Zoom’ meeting to review a Tourism Demonstration Pilot project. Also in late June the Municipal Economic Development Department sent out resources related to COVID re-opening to all lodges. Similar work by our Economic Development Department continued through July and to present day. The Economic Development Department has advised they are working on a COVID Tourism Modification Pilot Project with the following operators; Moosehorn Lodge, Anderson’s Lodge, Abram Lake Lodge, Fireside Lodge, Tikinagan Camp, Frog Rapids Camp, Lac Seul Floating Lodges, and Nutt’s Country Cabins, and welcome more operators to reach out by contacting Lauren Nickle at [email protected] to receive information and project updates. Economic Development has also sought input from the local tourism sector through surveys and requests for information that the Municipality could use in advocating to the Province and Federal Government for support.
As Mayor I have sought out opportunities to use that information and advocate for the Sioux Lookout tourism sector. This has included highlighting the impacts of COVID on this sector and their unique plight related to the American border closure. In late June the CAO, EDM, and myself met with MP Eric Melillo and discussed the need for some form of relief. In July through engagement on conference calls Minister Rickford arranged with Northwestern Ontario Mayors, I was able to raise the issue again. In early July we applied for ‘standing’ to the Provincial Legislature Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs on COVID impacts on the Municipality, we were granted a hearing and presented on impacts including highlighting the plight of the local tourism sector. Our local MPP Sol Mamakwa is a member of the Committee which is comprised of representatives from both the Government and Opposition. In August we applied again to the same Provincial Standing Committee to present on impacts to small businesses. During this appearance we focused our briefing note and presentation entirely on our local tourism sector using information our Economic Development Department had received from the sector. We followed up on our presentation to the Standing Committee with a letter reiterating our points. It is our hope that this will help inform Provincial support programs related to the local tourism sector.
In late August I was invited to participate in a virtual announcement by Federal Economic Development Minister Melanie Joly related to FedNor funding. Prior to the announcement I had a one on one telephone conversation with the Minister during which I brought to her attention the need for Federal support for the local tourism sector which seems appropriate given that it is the Federal Government responsible for border closure. I followed up with a letter to Minister Joly reiterating the points I had made during our telephone conversation. In late September Minister Joly’s Parliamentary Secretary, MP Terry Sheehan, reached out to me and arranged a telephone conversation to discuss the information we had provided related to our tourism sector. We are currently following up on that conversation – the Municipality will poll the local tourist businesses for specific ideas and suggestions for support from the Federal Government which we will send to MP Terry Sheehan for his consideration
We at the Municipality, both administrative and political, continue to work to support our tourism industry. We are well aware that they are suffering through no fault of their own. Recently our CAO discussed the situation with Gerry Cariou, Executive Director of the Sunset Country Travel Association. That Association, of which the Municipality is a member, has also been bringing the unique plight of the local tourism sector to both Provincial and Federal representatives. As well as that information the Association has been advocating for something we all want – a safe re-opening plan for the border with clear guidelines and assistance for tourist operators.