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Kenora seeks to grow its tourism pie

Economic development officer Jennifer Findlay has to show a visitor Kenora’s latest addition to its tourism portfolio, the Tall Pines Marina.
The new Whitecap Pavilion on Kenora’s waterfront has been one of the building blocks in the transformation of the local economy from milltown to full-fledged resort community.

Economic development officer Jennifer Findlay has to show a visitor Kenora’s latest addition to its tourism portfolio, the Tall Pines Marina.

A secluded and sheltered spot on one of Lake of the Woods’ many bays is helping to build the community’s branding profile as a premier resort town.

A Winnipeg commercial developer, the Chartier Group, the owners of 400 acres of former Abitibi mill property, sold off 17 acres of prime waterfront land to Blaine King, owner of Winnipeg Sports and Leisure (WSL), a local boat dealer.

Chartier had originally eyed the spot for a future residential project, but Findlay, quickly realized a marina development fit perfectly with its multi-faceted tourism branding campaign to promote Kenora as a world-class boat destination.

“When they (WSL) first approached us in February saying they were looking at buying this property, I said it would fit perfectly with our brand,” said Findlay. “It’s across the road from our Discovery Visitor Centre and it’s beautiful.”

Site preparations began last summer on the shore of Cameron Bay to make way for the full-service marina, which opened during the May long weekend with the first 100 slips installed.

Marina general manager Brad Doerksen said 230 slips will be added over the next two years for both member and transient boaters.

The development is situated on a former sawmill site from the late 1800s.

At one time, said Doerksen, there were as many as seven such operations in the bay, harbouring vast rafts of log booms.

Doerksen wanted to preserve the ambiance of the property and they were careful to cut only eight trees. The stone foundations of the mill buildings were incorporated into the landscaping.

More construction continues this summer with marina office, dealership and boat storage buildings.

Kenora has been wildly successful in making the transition from being a forestry-dependent community of 15,000 to promoting itself as a vacation getaway for Manitobans.

At one time, tourism in this corner of scenic Lake of the Woods was truly a cottage industry.

The reality check came in 2006 when Abitibi-Consolidated dropped the axe on its pulp and paper mill, cutting loose 320 workers. Kenora Forest Products still remains in suspended animation after its 2008 mothballing, though Weyerhaeuser’s strand lumber mill is still thriving.

Instead of chasing smokestacks, Kenora rebranded itself and its 14,522 islands as a retirement/cottage capital and as a good place for small business to thrive.

Municipal and senior government funders invested more than $23 million for new highway tourist signage, a massive “big dig” downtown and waterfront revitalization project, a new lakeside tourist information centre, and the Whitecap Pavilion; a tent-like waterfront venue that hosts 40 to 60 festivals, concerts and special events year-round.

That led to an estimated $61 million of private investment filtering into town with new retail outlets and new small business owners catering to the cottage and tourist crowd.

“I’m feeling a vibe in the community that I haven’t felt in the past,” said Kenora tourism manager Heather Gropp, who received more than 23,000 visitors last year at the Discovery Centre on the Winnipeg side of town.

Despite Kenora’s success, her department isn’t resting on its laurels.

Gropp has five specific multi-media promotional campaigns underway, including 30-second commercials on two Winnipeg TV stations plus a strong radio and social media presence targeting specific travel groups.

At one time, she campaigned as far west as Calgary, but she’s reeled back closer to home waters in catering to the million-plus population base of the Winnipeg and southeastern Manitoba market, less than a two-hour drive away.

Among her latest campaigns is targeting new immigrant Canadians, including Winnipeg’s large Filipino population.

“We’re specifically focused on that market and we’re starting to see the results.”

Findlay said the municipality would like to pursue more event and sports tourism business to fill hotel and conference rooms, with local talk continuing of a possible convention centre and casino development.

Four major chain hotels in town are undergoing major renovations, but Findlay wants to add a premium boutique hotel to the accommodations mix.

“We’re putting feelers out to the Canadian hotel investment conference to get the word out of what Kenora is looking for.”