Muskoka To-DAILY

Tourism battle pits Bracebridge chamber vs. most of rest of Muskoka

Mark Clairmont |

BRACEBRDIGE — The thought that Gravenhurst and Huntsville have much more in common than Bracebridge and Georgian Bay or Lake of Bays and Muskoka Lakes do is being seriously challenged — if not debated — at the business level.

When business groups and governments should be finalizing plans for the summer tourism season, a major schism has arisen between them.

A move by the Bracebridge Chamber of Commerce to go it alone in rebranding itself as the “Muskoka Chamber of Commerce,” is causing bad blood among some neighbouring chambers of commerce.

The move is not yet official.

Instead of looking to cooperate, they are squabbling.

The bad blood stems from meetings last year among the five chambers of commerce about a possible merger.

Without a consensus on full agreement, the matter was dropped.

Or so most — except chamber Bracebridge — thought.

And when they went ahead unilaterally in claiming to represent all of Muskoka, the Gravenhurst, Huntsville/Lake of Bays, Georgian Bay and Muskoka Lakes strongly opposed it.

The latter even calling for a cease and desist use of the name.

Last week the matter came before the Bracebridge Town Council, where councillor Lori-Lynn Giaschi-Pacini asked that the town end a $70,000 agreement it has with the Bracebridge chamber to run Bracebridge’s visitor’s centre, including free rent at its silver bridge office.

A 4-4 tie vote by council defeated the motion.

However, Giaschi-Pacini intends to revisit the discussion Wednesday by having it pulled out again when the minutes are up for approval.

She believes such close vote deserves more discussion after a week’s extra consideration.

Mayor Graydon Smith called her motion an emotional rant, while he voted in favour of the chamber, along with councillor Rick Maloney, Chris Wilson and Mark Quemby.

Stephen Clement, Barb McMurray and Archie Buie sided with Giaschi-Pacini.

Bracebridge chamber president David Sprague assured town council in a letter that his group would spend council’s money on town promotions only; leaving the impression any other money raised by ‘Muskoka Chamber’ members conducting their businesses in Bracebridge could still go to Muskoka-wide promotions.

All of this comes as Bracebridge struggles to adapt to an ever-changing business climate, which in recent years has seen the district seat suffer through number of setbacks, including factory losses in Dura and Algonquin Automotive, the loss of Nipissing University and a serious threat to South Muskoka Memorial Hospital.

Bracebridge has never been shy about promoting itself as the ‘Heart of Muskoka.’

But with Huntsville growing to be Muskoka’s largest town and the latest news of Gravenhurst getting a Chinese bilingual high school, Bracebridge is no longer the dominant player it once was between 1980 and 2015.

And that irks some there and has led to some hard ball.

Ask Huntsville Mayor about Smith’s backstabbing attempt to usurp a single hospital with an offer of free fairgrounds land to the LHIN on Hwy. 11 behind Walmart?

Or a former Bracebridge chamber manager seeming to get a dig in at Gravenhurst by saying on Facebook he heard the Muskoka Centre deal was in doubt.

And people talk about playing nice together.

Some of this may have its roots in a floundering ‘One Muskoka’ movement, which Bracebridge believes it could capital-ize on with the District of Muskoka — and its pro-one-for-all and all-for-one district chair John Klinck — already a large government presence there.

Then there’s is Port Sydney/Utterson Chamber of Commerce.

Who knew it existed to promote one general store in each of the two villages?

But maybe that’s the point.

Muskoka Tourism is ostensibly the single voice for district-wide businesses.

However, with it committed mostly to just the largest tourist destinations like Deerhurst (but no longer Grandview Resort, which closed last week in favour of condos), maybe there is room for another similar business advocacy group.

So, where would the $300,000 or so the district gives them go if the pie were sliced up?

And what about federal/provincial funding for tourism and such events?

Like the $49,000 this area’s Regional Tourism Office (RTO 12) recently got to target US/UK visitors this summer.

Meanwhile, back in Port Sydney/Utterson (where many strongly believe the new one hospital will be located — they even point to the land itself)

In a letter last week to Huntsville’s mayor and council, Peter Matthews, president, Port Sydney/Utterson and Area Chamber of Commerce attempted to clarify the town’s $5,000 contribution to the group.

“There has been confusion …,” he wrote, on their position on the new Muskoka Chamber of Commerce, “that I would like to clarify.”

He said his group held an AGM Dec 6 and members voted on a motion “to start negotiating with the Bracebridge Chamber of Commerce regarding a creation of a new entity between our Chambers to become the Muskoka Chamber.”

He said they believe partnering and creating this new chamber we will better leverage the strong brand of Muskoka and better position the members of the chamber to take advantage of this broader trading area, while still ensuring we promote Port Sydney/Utterson and Area.”

Matthews said his chamber will “continue to live up to our civic responsibility to the community in which we are based. It’s intended that our efforts to support local business will, hand in hand, lead to a stronger relationship with the town.”

He asked that the $5,000 traditionally given to the Port Sydney/Utterson and Area Chamber of Commerce for the day-to-day operations still be granted “as it will continue to be spent in Port Sydney by ensuring the office in this location stays open to our businesses and visitors.

“If or when we become the Muskoka Chamber of Commerce, we will still be approaching the Town of Huntsville and its council in the future for funding for the day to day activities of running the office in Port Sydney and expect the other chambers to do as well from their own municipalities….

We look forward to further dialogue with the Town of Huntsville regarding our plans for a broader Muskoka Chamber of Commerce. We also look forward to the town’s support as we work to increase collaboration between the communities of Muskoka and build towards our vision of strong Muskoka-wide businesses….”

So, can Muskoka accommodate another business group?

This spring — or sooner — may do tell.

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Posted by on Mar 13 2017. Filed under Headlines. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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