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Fort Frances reinventing itself (6/03)

By ANDREW WAREING Fort Frances businesses are hoping to get a bigger piece of a very large tourism pie.

By ANDREW WAREING

Fort Frances businesses are hoping to get a bigger piece of a very large tourism pie. Reinventing Fort Frances is a committee of local business people that has been endeavouring for nearly three years to come up with ways to attract more attention to the town from tourists who pass through the community, says committee chair Susan Bodnarchuk.

Approximately one million tourists pass through Fort Frances every year, most through the Canada/U.S. border crossing at Church Street and Central Avenue across the Rainy River.

The results of the committee’s work, a number of proposals for local beautification, recreational facilities and improved services costing an estimated $50 million, were accepted by Fort Frances town council in April 2003.

“They (the committee) know that, of the million or so tourists who come through Fort Frances, there were only two or three per cent shopping downtown,” says Glenn Witherspoon, mayor of Fort Frances. “They want to get that into double digits.”

“We’d like to increase that by at least another 10 per cent,” says Bodnarchuk. “If we could raise it that much, it would increase the town’s tax base by another $119,000 and would add another 34 full-time jobs. And, as we add different attributes of the plan, it would continue to grow.”

The initiative resulted in the pooling of the efforts of the entire town including town council, the local chamber of commerce and the Business Improvement Area (BIA), Bodnarchuk says. It was started by the local business women’s network.

“(Kenora-Rainy River MP) Bob Nault challenged the (business women’s) network to come up with ideas to enhance tourism as a second industry in the area,” says Bodnarchuk. “There were originally three of us from the network who started throwing out ideas and concepts for the gateway area.

“We started with some concepts and some rough drawings and then we started to pull in other groups,” Bodnarchuk says. “It’s much different now than when we started out.”

The committee hired the services of architectural consultants Hilderman, Thomas, Frank and Cram from Winnipeg to come up with proposals for improvements.

“We’re looking at doing it in phases over five to 10 years,” she says. “What we’re looking at in the early phases is right in the downtown gateway area. We’ve got a five or six block area here in the downtown that we’ve concentrated on.”

Among the improvements planned include beautification projects to the international bridge and relocation of the town’s tourism information booth to a more readily accessible location. Also being considered is increased parking, especially for motor homes and boat trailers, and welcoming signs for tourists and a large mural on a building owned by the local Abitibi Consolidated mill.

Bodnarchuk says discussions about the mural and land acquisition for parking are currently underway between the town and Abitibi Consolidated. Discussions are also underway with the Ontario Realty Corp. for the building of a new tourism information centre.

“It is in the very early stages,” Bodnarchuk says, adding that the local chamber of commerce, the BIA and Sunset Country Travel Association have all expressed interest in providing funding for the gateway area improvements, which are expected to cost about $5 million.

Witherspoon says some of the lighter work such as beautification and mural painting can be accomplished by this summer, with projects such as the rebuilding of the tourism information centre expected to get underway in 2004 and 2005. The challenge now is to find more funding for the project from such sources as Northern Ontario Heritage Fund and even some municipal funding, he adds.

“That’s the toughest thing, as more and more demands are put on municipal government and we have to prioritize,” Witherspoon says. “It’s been a tough go and we’re pushing hard. We just have to get everyone on board. The money is coming in drips and drabs, but we need a little more, a little quicker.”

Over the long term, Bodnarchuk says that consideration is also being given to the development of a parking lot where a mothballed high school exists, and the acquisition of a wood lot owned by Abitibi Consolidated, which could be turned into a water park or other recreational facility.

“We’re hoping that these early stages are going to start a domino effect and get other projects going,” she says.

Witherspoon says the community is rethinking its approach to tourism.

“What worked 20, 30 or 40 years ago doesn’t work now. Where we used to attract a lot of hunting and fishing type activities, now there is more of a focus on family-type activities and ecotourism.”

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