MUSKOKA - Resort owners and government officials met two weeks ago in Port Carling to discuss ways to save the struggling resort business in Muskoka.
Muskoka looks at changing official plan on resorts.
FINDING A SOLUTION. Resort owners, local politicians and others involved in the resort industry discussed the difficulties they are facing at this time at a meeting on Nov. 1. (Photo by Jennifer Bowman)
At one time resorts dotted the Muskoka landscape, but over the decades many of them have burned down or gone out of business. The District of Muskoka continues to keep the land of the old resorts zoned as resort commercial, whether the resorts are up and running or whether they no longer exist.
The problem said resort owners and planners at the meeting is that they are having difficulty running a viable business or selling their property because of the stringent restrictions on resorts in Muskoka’s official plan.
With tourism as a main driver of Muskoka’s economy, the problem of not being able to make money in the resort business is causing concern to local business owners and politicians both in terms of land use and economics.
PKF Consulting Inc., an international tourism consulting agency, is working with the District of Muskoka to help the district understand things from the tourism perspective, which could influence the district’s decisions if they decide to change their official plan.
“We can’t have everything. We can’t turn around and put huge constraints on the development of existing operations and expect growth. On the flip side, if we loosen them up and we have growth, we’ve got other indications that we need to deal with,” said Brian Stanford, director of the consulting agency.
Stanford told those at the meeting in Port Carling on Nov. 1 that Muskoka is going to have some challenges ahead to adapt to the changing market, including changing what it is selling.
“It’s become less about what the product is and more about what the experience is,” he said.
According to the consulting agency, hotel and resort occupancy peaked in 2001 at 64 per cent. This year, the national and provincial rate is similar at 62 per cent. The difference is people in Ontario are paying 20 per cent less for a room than they were in 2008.
In Muskoka the numbers are more dismal. In 11 year-round Muskoka resorts, the year-round occupancy rate is 47 per cent. During the peak season in July and August, occupancy is 67 per cent.
Those numbers vary drastically in smaller or seasonal resorts.
“Those are numbers that are not sustainable,” Stanford said.
Following a presentation by Stanford, resort owners, real estate agents, municipal and district government representatives, lake associations, and others in the private sector broke into groups to discuss the issues that are facing resort owners and municipalities.
Lake of Bays Mayor Bob Young asked long-time resort operator and owner of Clevelands House, Ken Fowler, what’s changed in the industry.
It’s a lifestyle change, Fowler said.
Bookings used to be for one week at a time, and now travellers come up for three days and it can be difficult to get them to pay, he said.
“When we open next year, I’m determined we’re going to have entertainment, not because we can afford it, but so we can try to fill our rooms,” he said.
Other resort owners expressed concern that while Muskoka is stringently laying out dos and don’ts for resort properties, surrounding areas are building up their resorts and people are taking their business elsewhere.
Marg Walton, a partner and senior planner for Planscape, a planning firm based in Bracebridge, said one of the problems is Muskoka is no longer known as a tourist destination.
“One of Muskoka’s problems is it is increasingly seen as a cottage place for the high-end,” she said.
Bob Young said townships have their own problems with the official plan policies on resorts: the fear of being taken to an Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hearing by resort owners.
“At the moment, they have the ammunition. They have the thou shalt not (in the official plan), and they pull that up to the OMB. We need to have more flexibility,” Young said.
Stanford said the day was purely to find out what is driving development and not to make any recommendations at this point. He said he will draft a document then meet with the district’s planning and economic development department in December. Following that he will meet with the townships in Muskoka.
A summary of the discussion will be posted on the District of Muskoka’s at muskoka.on.ca.