Concern growing over a possible new hotel

Ken Kellar

Some local hoteliers are expressing their concerns over parts of the proposed Shevlin Woodyard concepts.

Last week the town and public were able to see the concepts that have been designed for the Gateway to Fort Frances and Shevlin Woodyard projects. Both of the projects are being designed by HTFC Planning and Design, who made three separate presentations to town council and the public in order to explain some of the designs and the reasoning behind them.

Included in the both the concepts that HTFC designed for the revitalized Shevlin Woodyard is a hotel/conference centre. The representatives for HTFC noted in their report as well as in the public webinar sessions that were held last week that a combined hotel/conference centre is something they had seen an expressed desire for in the consultations held in person and online in February and March.

However, Paul Noonan and his daughter Sarah, longtime owners and operators of La Place Rendez-Vous, attended one of the public webinar sessions last week and feel that there’s a very real risk in bringing in a new hotel to Fort Frances.

“We don’t feel the community can support another conference hotel type facility,” Paul said.

“If you examine our occupancies, you can see that ourselves, the Copper River and even the Super 8, which recently put an addition on, are not running at occupancies where we would consider even an addition.”

Neither Paul nor Sarah were speaking on behalf of the Copper River Inn or Super 8 Hotel, instead only referencing some operating information and numbers they said they had received from the other establishments, including occupancy rates from the last few years.

The thrust of the argument comes down to the fact that the hotels’ availability is still relatively high. According to information provided by La Place Rendez-Vous, the hotel saw an occupancy rate of 55.21 per cent in 2018, which dropped to 51.87 per cent for 2019. The same document also had numbers for the Copper River and Super 8 which were similar, though it would appear Super 8 had high enough rates to justify their recent 24-room addition. The document didn’t include metrics from smaller establishments in Fort Frances such as the Sleepy Owl, Bayview or Rainbow motels.
What it means, according to Paul, is that adding more rooms to the town’s pool by way of another large hotel would take away from businesses that are already here.

“What we feel is that with the occupancies that we’re running, if you put up a brand new facility like that, it’s probably going to eliminate one of the other players in town,” he said.

“That’s the downside of it, for sure. Yes, you have a brand new facility, but on the other hand, you’re not gaining any tax base because you’re probably going to drive one or more of the players out of the old picture.”

There’s also the lingering ghost of the COVID-19 pandemic which is still hanging over the financial outlook for many businesses in town and around the world. What was once potentially a given is now mostly uncertain as the long-term effects of the virus and related shutdowns are still not understood. Sarah said she’s concerned that information gathered in a pre-pandemic world might not hold the same value now.

“I think that when we had this session in February… life is different now, and I think that we have to take COVID into account,” she said.

“I just shared an article of a video interview on my Facebook there an interview with Susie Grynol, who is from Fort Frances. She’s the president of the Hotel Association of Canada and she’s putting out numbers that it’s going to take five years to recover. I just don’t think this is an immediate need and it’s certainly not going to be a need after this, because the tourism industry is going to be suffering.”

In addition to the lack of visitors renting rooms during and after the COVID-19 pandemic which is driving down occupancy rates, there is also the matter of the conference spaces at both La Place Rendez-Vous and Copper River Inn. Sarah said the conference space is already one of their lesser used facilities, and she’s not sure demand will jump back to what it was pre-COVID as more people get used to teleconferencing.

“With Zoom meetings you don’t need to rent our conference facility,” she said.

“You’re running your meetings on Zoom right now, and are you going to go back fully to that? I don’t know. Maybe it’s more of a blended, ‘We don’t need to book a room for that. Let’s just do this one on Zoom.’”

Bryce Campbell is the owner of the Copper River Inn and also participated in last Wednesday’s public webinar session. During a Q&A period following the unveiling of the Shevlin Woodyard concepts, Campbell asked the presenters about a study that found the town could not support another hotel. He later clarified to the Times that he was referring to the feasibility study undertaken by the local Super 8 when it was exploring expansion options. The Times has not seen the results of this study.

During the webinar, HTFC’s Glen Manning noted that because the concept was designed at a high level, the different elements presented –housing, brew pub, spray park, hotel– were not necessarily what would be built.

“What we’re really doing at this point is gauging the community’s interest,” Manning said.

“We’re reflecting back some of the thing’s we’ve heard. This [hotel/conference centre] idea came up several times during public engagement, we’ve heard it through our steering committee and other sources and there was some background research that supported this as well, but part of our assessment of this idea, and the idea’s really providing commercial space and takes advantage of the riverfront… there are lots of other things that could work in the space as well.”

Campbell said he thinks part of the reason the hotel has come up as a potential idea is because of the notion that hotels in Fort Frances are consistently booked to the brim.

“I think there is a misconception [that] because we sell out every Friday night in the summer that we don’t have enough hotels,” Campbell told the Times.

“Friday nights five months of the year doesn’t pay for an additional hotel that would likely come with a $15-million price tag.”

Paul also noted that La Place Rendez-Vous experiences higher occupancy rates during the summer, but those numbers shouldn’t be used isolated from the other months and seasons of the year.
“There’s Friday nights in June, part of July that we’re booked,” he said.

“But other than that? There’s that saying, ‘you don’t build cathedrals for Midnight Mass.’”

In a separate email to the Times, economic development officer Tannis Drysdale explained that the town has had high occupancy rates for a number of years, which supports the decision to look into having a hotel added to the Shevlin Woodyard.

“In advance of the recent expansion of the Super 8 the chain did a study that confirmed the need for additional rooms,” Drysdale wrote.

“The results of that study … resulted in an expansion. That is consistent with the analysis of the MAT marketing plan where it was noted we have almost no occupancy available in the summer months. We continue to have significant interest in investment from the hotel industry. In a post COVID world, this may be a dramatically different landscape, but I expect we eventually return to high occupancy rates again.”

Additionally, Fort Frances Town Council saw a presentation last week on a tourism plan independent of the HTFC concepts that is focused on bringing in more tourists throughout the year by providing enhanced opportunities during the shoulder seasons.

For their parts, the Noonans aren’t necessarily against having a hotel on the Shevlin yard at some point in the future, but rather are concerned that as things stand now, the cart is being put before the horse.

“A hotel doesn’t bring more tourists here,” Sarah said.

“We have to create something, we have to diversify a little bit from just being a fishing industry. What else is attractive in Fort Frances that people are going to come, and then maybe a hotel will get built because we need it, but we’re not there. We’re three years of decline in occupancy rates, and this year is going to be a disaster.”