Before starting in with an analysis of the Town of Parry Sound’s 2016 Budget I want to offer some thoughts on a topic that arose at the budget meeting on Tuesday night. I’ve sat through about one hundred council meetings at this point and, once the deputations are over, I am required to sit quietly and listen to the discussion. With no opportunity to speak, it provides me with the opportunity to listen and think about the issue at hand. Perhaps that’s why this blog exists, an opportunity to express an opinion that may or may not be heard, but at least forces me to put my thoughts together, with the understanding that it will be open to review and criticism. Hopefully it also stimulates some to think about an issue and perhaps take action.

During the discussion Tuesday night on how the 2016 Budget can be used to revitalize the Town and businesses I had a sense that the best intents of Council may not always be aligned with best outcomes when it comes to Town residents and businesses. As a town we are pretty much committed to Free Parking to support businesses in the downtown. That will mean a $150,000 annual loss of income. It has been argued that much of that income is offset by maintenance costs (repair, snow plowing, meter maintenance, etc.), parking attendant, with a net zeroing out of income and expenses. These expenses of course will now need to be cut, or accounted for in some other part of the budget. I’ll leave it at that, but if the parking revenue income is lost, there are still the same expenses, except perhaps meter maintenance. So it becomes a net expense, of about $100,000 a year. (Accounting at some point for 1% of your tax bill.)

Despite the cost of Free Parking, I’m happy to support the initiative and local businesses. I do object to the hiring of a parking attendant to supervise free parking. It seems pretty stupid to offer something for free, and then monitor that free isn’t abused.

So, Council seems prepared to make a major commitment to support the downtown businesses. This effective tax increase of course doesn’t really help any of the businesses that are not located in the downtown parking area. They have already paid for land to allow client parking, they pay for their parking area upkeep, and are taxed on the value of the parking area. But, I’m still okay with that. If the businesses want to complain, let them; as a resident it’s not hurting me. As an aside, if I were one of those businesses that provides free parking already I would probably ask that the Town rebate me all, or a large portion, of the property tax value of the parking area. That would seem to level the competitive space, and allow all businesses to benefit from ‘free parking’. But then that would cost the Town tax revenues and raise taxes for everyone.

What really caught my attention Tuesday night was the mention that attracting cruise ships to Parry Sound should be pursued more actively. It was felt that these cruise boats bring in visitors who will spend money, and support local businesses. Apparently the Pearl Mist is scheduled for ten visits in 2016.

Whoopee? No wait, let’s take a look at the figures.

So we will have ten visits of about 250 people. That adds up to a maximum of 2,500 visitors spending less than 24 hours in Parry Sound, or 2,500 visitor days. Will they be booking accommodation? No! Will they be buying meals? Perhaps, but probably no more than dinner. Will they be buying trinkets? Probably. Will they be buying gas, hardware supplies, groceries, or ….? Or how about a cruise on the Island Queen or the Chippewa III? No, of course not. And when it comes to trinkets, remember they have a dozen stops and limited storage space. No SUV to haul things back home.

Or perhaps they will simply get off the boat, hop onto a chartered bus, and be whisked away to see the sites and a catered lunch elsewhere.

What’s the dollar value of these visits. Let’s say they spend $50 on meals and $50 on trinkets. That adds up to an optimistic estimate of $100 per person and $250,000 spent in Parry Sound. More likely it tops out at $100,000. Not bad, but there is a much better place to spend money and invest Staff time if the Town wants to help the business sector, all of it, not just the downtown. Council is council for all of Parry Sound aren’t they?

It’s the provincial parks, which received no mention last night, or in any of the many council meeting I have attended. How many potential customers for Parry Sound businesses are there in the parks, and why might they be a much better opportunity for business development?

At peak, Killbear Park hosts about 5,000 people a day and peak pretty much lasts from July 1st to Labour Day, with significant numbers in the month before and after. To be conservative, let’s say there are about 3,000 people per day in Killbear Park for two months. That totals about 180,000 people days. And for the fun of it, let’s add in another 10% to account for Oastler and Grundy Lake Parks, and the shoulder seasons, bringing it to a nice round 200,000 people days. An optimist could suggest it’s more like 300,000.

So what money might the average camper drop in Parry Sound? Well they will need to buy gas, it’s a long way here and a long way to where they are going. How about groceries? Well they probably stocked up before leaving but there is always much more that they need. Prices in Parry Sound are very reasonable, so there is no reason not to buy supplies in Parry Sound, it’s not like buying a meal or a drink at the airport. And there is always something they forgot, didn’t realize they needed, or broke down at the moment of use. That means a trip to the hardware store, White Squall, Mitch’s, Canadian Tire or WalMart. Cold or hot weather can also mean the need for a sweatshirt, jacket, swimsuit, and a visit to the one of the local shops.

And even a good camping experience benefits from an occasional meal of pizza, fish and chips, or sausage on a bun, much less a sit down meal. More opportunity to support our local businesses.

And on a beautiful day is there anything better to do than come to Town and get aboard the Island Queen for a trip around Parry Island, or charter a fishing trip, or hop a boat ride down the South Channel? On a crummy day, it’s a visit for the kids to the Strand, or a visit to Parry Sound Books or Bearly Used Books for reading material. Perhaps it’s a trip to the library to catch some free Wi-Fi, followed by lunch or dinner at one of the restaurants or fast food establishments. It’s not fun sitting in a tent in the rain, much less cooking in the rain.

Speaking with local businesses it’s pretty obvious that Parry Sound already captures value from these provincial park visitors. What if we could capture just an additional dollar from each one of these 200,000+ visitor days? That’s $200,000. Make it $5 and you are pumping an additional million dollars into the local economy; all of the Parry Sound businesses can benefit, not just those in walking distance of the cruise ships. How many cruise ships would it take to capture this type of money?

What if we could encourage the local cottagers to drop by for an extra meal, or to take in a leisure activity? That might add another 50% to the total. These are people who are also around for the important shoulder seasons.

But Council expressed interest in exploring a $5,000 membership in the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition to possibly secure more cruise ship visits to visit Parry Sound? I understand the Great Lakes Cruising Coalition will be making a deputation at next week’s meeting of Council to make a case for Parry Sound taking a membership in their organization.

As an aside, and not really a consideration in this analysis, the cruise ships are a nuisance for those of us who actually walk around the Parry Sound Waterfront. For security and presumably customs reasons the Town Dock is off limits for the locals when the cruise ships are tied up. With ten visits in 2016 over the summer months the Town Dock will be off limits for more than 10% of the time. Our non-cruise boat summer visitors may make the lines longer at the grocery stores, and add to traffic, but they don’t keep us from enjoying our local attractions.

Another suggestion was made at Tuesday night’s meeting to add back in an expense that had been removed in the latest series of cuts – refurbishing the toilets at the Town Dock. Interestingly enough, it was also estimated to cost $5,000. Hmm, $5,000 that will serve thousands, or $5,000 to woo new cruise boat visits. I believe a town is judged more for it amenities, that in part is it’s toilets, than how many cruise boats visit. I doubt the cruise boat guests will be using the Town Dock facilities, it’s better onboard.

Enough of the carping. Going forward I’ll be taking a ‘dispassionate’ look at the budget and where we are spending the money.

Speaking with a local business owner about the suggestion to attract more cruise boat business, they just laughed. What is needed they suggested was lower taxes for the downtown businesses. Lower taxes will mean more financial resources for businesses to invest in their stores and services that can attract more customers to the downtown, be they locals, tourists, boaters, campers, cottagers, or even cruise boat patrons.

Council seems to believe that more Town sponsored and directed investment in Parry Sound can make the town more attractive for businesses and attract more development. That implies higher taxes. Is there a better way? You can’t easily cut your way to growth, and you can’t easily spend your way to success. I would be happy to see the Town present a plan that outlines the strategy, defines the actions, and most importantly identifies the metrics to assess the success of the plan. You can’t always be right but it’s nice to know where you went wrong. If you’re smart, you can make logical changes.

But, but, it adds so much class to the Town’s waterfront.