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Region focused on tourism (12/03)

Muskoka; the name itself speaks of vacation paradise. Its countryside is filled with trees and lakes a mere two hours away from Toronto.

Muskoka; the name itself speaks of vacation paradise. Its countryside is filled with trees and lakes a mere two hours away from Toronto. Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russel and Martin Short have each made it a summer home at one point or another, along with scads of National Hockey League stars.

It is also a place people call home and make their living.

“Overall, one of our primary drivers are tourism and recreation,” says District of Muskoka commissioner of economic development Marg French. “The towns (Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville) are more the industrial/business sector, while in the townships (Georgian Bay, Muskoka Lakes and Lake Of Bays) is where small service business and home-based business are really flourishing.

“These small businesses are a benefit to our area because frequently small business becomes bigger business,” she says. “I think the reason they have come here is because of the lifestyle.”

The Town of Bracebridge was recently hit hard by news in August that Fenner-Dunlop, formerly Scandura, which produces belting for the mining and aggregate industry, was shutting down its Bracebridge plant and laying off 71 people, says Bracebridge economic development officer Cheryl Kelley. Economic conditions were blamed for the shut down, she says, although it may open in one to three years, depending on the economy.

Bracebridge had already developed an economic development plan, but the closure of Scandura and that of Alcan two years ago has placed a greater emphasis on the work that is being done. Several businesses, such as Home Depot and Kelsey’s, have or are locating in Bracebridge and the town is also in the process of developing a light industrial/commercial “park,” says Kelley. It will consist of 18 lots with five buildings going up on Taylor Court near the north entrance to Bracebridge, off Highway 11.

She says the community also began its own Business Retention and Expansion (BR+E) program. Community volunteers will be interviewing local business owners about issues that affect them. It is estimated 80 local businesses will be interviewed.

“It’s an entirely voluntary community effort with a lot of retired business people who are going in to meet the business owners and do the survey,” says Kelley.

The effort already paid dividends when it helped prevent the departure of a local business leaving, which would have meant the elimination of over 300 jobs. Kelley was unable to give much detail except to say it was a zoning issue related to land-use, but it points to the importance of direct contact with business made possible with a BR+E program.

George Young, a member of the Town of Huntsville’s economic development committee, says the community also has its own BR+E program, which he says has “built up a level of trust” between the town and its business community that is an important part of future development.

He says the town is working on a number of economic initiatives, but whatever happens, it must be done in a way that protects the local environment, something that many have identified as a major selling point for bringing business into Muskoka.

“Whatever we get, we do not want it to hurt the lifestyle that we have here, things like our clean water and clean air,” he says.

The community of Gravenhurst bills itself as a gateway to Northern Ontario and its location at the junction of Highways 169 and 11 place it in a unique location.

However, Town of Gravenhurst co-ordinator of development services and chief planner Ian Sugden says the realignment of Highway 11 at the south entrance to the town, currently a harrowing near right-angle turn, is but one of a number of initiatives. It may be the start of other improvements, including a new retail development on Talisman Drive at the south end of the town; improvements to the main street of Gravenhurst planned by the District of Muskoka and the realization of a streetscape plan for the downtown.

“The town has started an environmental assessment for the upgrade improvements to Talisman Drive to bring it to Ministry (of Transportation) standards so they can hook up to it,” he says. “That’s underway and we’ll probably make a bid sometime by next summer.”

Four years ago, the community also heard of a proposed redevelopment of its Sagamo park, called the Muskoka Wharf project, a $60-million development in partnership between the town, Evanco, Forrec, and the Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society. The proposal consists of several items including a possible hotel, retail development and a boating museum along the Muskoka Bay waterfront, which would serve as an attraction to bring visitors to the community.

Sugden says the project is going through a “major re-think” after concerns were raised by the public over the intensity of the development and how much it could impact public enjoyment of the waterfront.

“We’re hoping to get a final draft proposal for staff review before it goes to council, and, from there, it will go for public review,” says Sugden.

Muskoka continues to be the place where many come to play, and, according to Muskoka Tourism executive director Bill Sullivan, 70 per cent of the resident population of Muskoka rely directly or indirectly on tourism to make their living.

He says 2001 statistics show more than 1.6 million visits were made to Muskoka, with the primary source of visits being the Greater Toronto Area (GTA)/Golden Horseshoe region. However, the number of trips from 1999 to 2001 decreased from about 2.3 million to 1.6 million, with a $60-million drop in revenue for the region.

“We don’t have numbers for 2002 or 2003,” says Sullivan. “We were told by the province that we would have 2002’s numbers sometime this fall. The 2003 numbers, we’re quite sure, are going to be down from that, as a (result) of SARS and West Nile.

“Visitation to our Highway 11 information centre was down 25 per cent for the first eight months of 2003 from the year prior,” he says. “Most of that came prior to the SARS outbreak. I would take that as an indictor of how many are coming to Muskoka.”

Sullivan says Muskoka also faces considerable competition from other areas of Ontario, such as Collingwood, United States tourist attractions and also world travel destinations in Europe.

“It used to be that people would come back to Muskoka year after year because they knew it,” he says. “If you wanted any information on a new place, it would take six weeks or more to get the information. Now people can go online; it’s instantaneous and there is a huge choice.”

It requires a strong marketing effort to stand out from the crowd, and Sullivan says Muskoka Tourism is working hard at branding under the Muskoka Is Magic tag line. The brand would be used to highlight many of Muskoka’s attractions, not just as a summer destination, but also for winter activities.