MUSKOKA – There was a burst of inquiry at a District of Muskoka council meeting about why one of Muskoka’s publicly funded tourism and marketing agencies has not met for months.
District coun. Lori-Lynn Giaschi-Pacini, chair of the planning and economic development committee, noted in her committee meeting overview that Michael Lawley, executive director for Muskoka Tourism Marketing Agency, gave a presentation in September about the agency’s 2012 program activities and results of an ongoing membership survey as well as priorities for 2013.
That seemed to get district coun. Phil Harding’s attention.
Harding sits on the agency’s board with Giaschi-Pacini.
“I’m interested in Mr. Lawley’s report and his projections as to what’s going on for 2013 or recommendations,” said Harding. “The past three board meetings for Muskoka Tourism Marketing Agency have actually been cancelled.”
He asked whether there had been an explanation of how the priorities for 2013 were set since the board had not met since June.
Michael Lawley, executive director for Muskoka Tourism Marketing Agency, told this paper in an interview that the agency relies on volunteers, who are often extremely busy in the summer and fall tourism seasons.
“Many of our volunteers are senior managers in the hospitality industry,” said Lawley. “When they are busy, their priority is really focusing on their primary job.”
The agency’s board has 15 members that represent industries such as hotels, resorts and area attractions. Members also include the two district councillors and a district staff member.
Muskoka Tourism Marketing Agency is a not-for-profit membership association funded by both the District of Muskoka and the private sector, according to its website.
The agency’s mandate is to provide a leadership role for tourism marketing in Muskoka, representing the interests of its members and the visitor market.
The district budgeted about $300,000 for the agency in 2012.
Lawley, who said he reports regularly to the district’s planning and economic development committee, noted his presentation with the committee in September touched on four topics, which included the agency’s performance metrics, program activities, member priorities for 2013 and plans going forward.
The member priorities were gleaned from an online survey to which the agency’s 384 members are continually able to respond.
“The member priority conversation I had with the district committee was through a live link to survey results,” said Lawley. “I tried to provide a high-level overview of what some of our members have identified as issues and recommendations.”
And when it came to the plans for going forward Lawley said he mentioned two main ideas. One was a third-party review and another was a revamped memorandum of understanding with the district.
He said the board would have been aware of these ideas.
“We wholeheartedly embrace a third-party review,” he said. “There are 47 organizations like Muskoka Tourism across Ontario and there is an opportunity through the third-party review to look at best practices elsewhere and transfer those where appropriate to our situation here in Muskoka. That’s just good common sense to undertake that activity.”
And he suggested the memorandum of understanding is a long-time coming. A memorandum of understanding embodies a commitment of two or more parties to an undertaking and sets out general principles. It is not a detailed contract.
“The district has been supporting Muskoka Tourism for a long time, but it has been providing funding since 1985,” said Lawley. “We need to look at that relationship regularly and we’re at a point now where we should revisit the memorandum to make sure there is understanding around the key performance indicators, what it is we want to do, what the district wants from us.”
Discussions about whether the agency was worthy of district funding arose during district budget deliberations earlier this year.
Councillors had commented on the number of tourism agencies in the region and questioned whether funding one agency, namely Muskoka Tourism, was the most efficient use of taxpayers’ money.
But district council has since decided to continue funding the organization.