By Chad Ingram
Stronger workforce development and a better alignment between the efforts of local governments and private businesses are among the suggestions in a destination development plan for the Haliburton Highlands, the final version of which Haliburton County councillors received during a Dec. 9 meeting.
The county hired Vancouver-based firm MMGY NextFactor in 2019 to compile the plan, which looks at ways to develop the Haliburton Highlands as a tourism destination and also to market it in a more widespread fashion. The process has included a number of public input sessions with county residents, officials and stakeholders, including focus groups and town hall meetings. As Greg Oates, vice president of innovation with the firm, noted during last week’s meeting, the compilation of the plan for the Highlands took longer than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing a delay in the process.
“In tourism, we’re looking at trying to compel visitors to continue to come back,” Oates said. “ . . . When visitors return to a destination, it’s not because they want to feel like a tourist, it’s because they want to feel like they’re part of a community and they identify with that community.”
In that way, Oates said its important that the majority of county residents be in agreement about the importance of tourism to the county’s economy, and how everyone is essentially connected to it in some way.
“The belief in the value of tourism is just as important as the overall destination infrastructure, and the overall visitor experience,” he said.
“Tourism development is about much more than just marketing when you look at all of things that need to happen,” Oates added. “ … Probably the biggest challenge we see, and where there’s the most room for immediate gains, is this lack of alignment between the public and private sectors, and you often have goals and initiatives being put forth by private interests, but when you look what happens within a city, a town, a county hall, and council, there isn’t always necessarily, if not an agreed upon alliance, just an awareness of what everyone’s doing.”
One of the many recommendations from a service delivery review the county recently had completed for itself and its four lower-tier municipalities, was the creation of an overarching economic development position that would serve all five local governments and co-ordinate economic development activities.
While feedback data showed many residents are pleased with and have confidence in the county’s #MyHaliburtonHighlands branding and its marketing efforts, the response was less glowing regarding local workforce development.
“Workforce development in the Haliburton Highlands, however, was especially glaring in how it compares behind other communities that have participated in DestinationNEXT,” the plan reads.
The plan also touched on the county’s lack of a public transportation system.
“Our goal is to really drive home the idea that mobility equals opportunity,” Oates said. “The easier it is to get around, the easier it is to spend money.”
“I think there’s some small pieces in here that we’ve been trying to leverage over the past 20 years,” said Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt, “but there’s lots of challenges that have come with that. But it’s really wonderful to see them captured, connected in one place, focused, and we’ve got a document that can be the foundation for moving forward.”
“The piece that resonates the most with me is the community alignment piece,” Moffatt said. “And this is a tremendous body of work that’s come from the public and its success or its failure is only going to rely on the community’s ability and willingness to work together. There has been, historically, over a long, long time, a disappointing amount of in-fighting and criticism and what’s that old saying, blowing out someone else’s candle doesn’t make yours shine any brighter? So, I just look forward to seeing this move forward.”
Dysart et al Deputy Mayor Pat Kennedy questioned how many more visitors or residents the Haliburton Highlands needed, particularly with more people staying in the area for longer periods due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think this plan has come forward at a very unique time,” Kennedy said. “I think that what you’ve given us is your thoughts on looking to the vision of five years from now, [when] we’re already there.”
“We’re now seeing lineups at grocery stores in November to get in, we’re now seeing lineups at our gas stations, gas stations running out of gas, increased demands for services,” Kennedy said. “I think this is an opportunity for us to take a look at this, but we also have to hit the pause button. I think we have to ask, how many is too many? Our lakes are overcrowded, there’s people there to the max every week now. Higher demands on waste management, all of infrastructure.”
“The other part of it is workforce,” Kennedy said. “We’ve had a huge number of people decide to move here . . . The people have moved here, they’re looking for work. There isn’t work that’s year-round, sustainable, good-paying jobs.”