The Town of Fort Frances has money to spend. But now the debate begins on how best to spend it.
Through the Municipal Accommodation Tax (MAT), the Town has collected $123,000 over the past year, according to Doug Brown, Fort Frances CAO. That can be leaveraged with different levels of government, to be nearly double. MAT is a four percent tax, charged to all short-term accommodation in the Town of Fort Frances, including motels, hotels, bed and breakfasts, resorts, AirBnB and tent or trailer rentals. Fort Frances began collecting MAT on Jan. 1, 2019.
Under legislation, at least 50 percent of the tax is to be used to promote local tourism, and offset costs of amenities utilized by tourists, such as parks, attractions, festivals and events. It can also be used for beautification, studies and reports, waterfront development, signage or marketing.
After the implementation of MAT, a committee of local stakeholders was formed to find the best use for the funds. It was opened to all accommodation venues with 12 or more rooms, though only the Copper River Inn, Sleep Owl, Bayview and LaPlace Rendez-Vous accepted the invitation, according to Peter Howie, who was on hand to present the committee’s update to the Economic Development Advisory Committee at its last meeting on Monday. Councillor John McTaggart, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce, Bass Tournament, Curling Club, Museum and Howie, who himself represents Borderland Pride, round out the group.
The first goal of the Committee is to hire a consultant, who will research the best way to move forward with tourism marketing, said Howie. They have been in talks with Chris Fields of Rynic Communications, to prepare a tactial plan. Fields has worked with the Town on its previous branding campaign.
But in the Committee’s own research, hotels are already at capacity for most of the year.
“We don’t need more tourists,” said Howie, who noted that hotels are booked to capacity with tourists in the summer months, and hockey tournament families in the winter, leaving only the narrow windows of April, October and November in need of a boost.
“In the summer, we have construction workers,” added Cathy Emes, president of the Chamber of Commerce. “They are tourists, but not the kind of tourists we want to attract.”
But the focus on marketing and hotel capacity didn’t sit well with some EDAC attendees, who wanted a more comprehensive look at the town and its needs.
“How do we get more. Because we need more,” said Brown. “How do we promote visitors spending more time, and not going directly to the cabin or resort that they’re staying at?”
“If there’s no vacancies, there’s no point in advertising a weekend in June,” noted Howie, who added that building hotel accommodation is a slow process.
Although hotels take time to plan and construct, campsites and RV parks are quick to implement, noted Kristie Ballard. Although Point Park has been underutilized, once litigation with Agency One is resolved, the park and beachfront could be beautified and developed to attract tourists, including RV parking, campsites and amenities.
An enhanced entry to the town would also be a benefit, including access, parking and signage, to direct tourists to landmarks.
“Let’s build on it first, and then advertise it,” said Mayor June Caul.
The current slow season coincides perfectly with hunting season, noted Brown, who suggested opening land around the airport to sport archers.
“Our deer hunting is second to none, but we’re not even talking about it,” he added.
Millennials have been a particularly elusive group for the Town. Experiential tourism is one avenue the MAT committee was exploring, said Howie. People who may not want to immerse into the wilderness for a full week will hire guides for an afternoon of hunting or fishing, he said. Apps have been created already for finding wilderness tour guides.
Our proximity to large cities, like Winnipeg and Minneapolis, and access to high speed internet are all assets to a younger generation, Brown noted.
Any plans also need to take into account freed up lands left over from the Resolute mill, he said.
Between Shevlin Yard, the mill site, and the waterfront, the Town will have 180 acres to play with, but with so many stakeholders tugging at the same funding pool, it’s important for everyone to get on the same page.
Mayor Caul agreed. “We need to focus on being a team. A real team,” she said. “We need to think, how can each of us help; what can each of us do.”
She proposed opening the debate to the public.
“I think there would be a lot of great ideas out there,” she said.