Could the Niagara region earning a UNESCO Geopark designation be important to post-COVID-19 economic recovery? The members of the Empower Niagara Aspiring Geopark Task Force feel it is a key element.
An online meeting June 26 brought together politicians and stakeholders from across Niagara to learn more about the push to have the region recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Board member Michael Halle led the session, describing it as the opening of a conversation about a new vision for tourism in Niagara.
“Since the COVID crisis hit, everything has changed,” he explained. “We know how dependent on tourism we are in the Niagara peninsula, and I think it’s become crystal clear that the size of the tourism economy is much greater than those not involved in the industry have ever thought.”
According to Halle, who has vast experience developing and supporting cultural and Indigenous tourism, the time is ripe for Niagara to push for the geopark designation.
Halle described a three-pronged approach proposed to jumpstart the tourism industry in Niagara.
The first would involve using cell phone data to track movement of tourists across the region. Visitors could download an app that would allow them to check in at different sites, while at the same time providing key information about where people go when they come here.
Next would be a survey conducted by local businesses to determine what tourists think and how they feel about hospitality in Niagara. The data would be shareable across the region, allowing a business in Niagara-on-the-Lake, for example, to compare itself to a similar business in Wainfleet or Fort Erie.
The third element is the launch of a program called I Am Niagara, which would turn local residents into tour guides and ambassadors of a sort. As Halle explained, with the U.S. border closed, and people less likely to travel from afar, local tourism is the order of the day. Attracting and engaging the visiting friends and relatives (VFR) segment will be important to economic recovery under these conditions.
Task force co-chair Darren Platakis began the process to push for the UNESCO Geopark designation about three years ago. Since then, nine of Niagara’s 12 municipalities, plus the regional government, have backed the application in theory. He also has earned the endorsement of the Niagara Escarpment Commission and the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority.
Platakis lives and breathes geography, as executive director of the non-profit Geospatial Niagara. The spark of the geopark idea came to him around 2014, when he stumbled onto the website of Stonehammer in New Brunswick, the first in Canada to earn the UNESCO designation. “As I was going through it, I immediately saw the potential that designation could have for Niagara,” says Platakis. “It’s about coaxing people out to explore more of the Niagara region, utilizing more of the assets that we have, beyond the usual areas that people visit.”
His 2019 presentation to regional council was well-received, and he’s hoping for continued support from all levels of government so the initiative doesn’t lose steam during and after the pandemic.
Platakis, who attended the 2018 UNESCO Geopark Conference in Trentino, north of Italy, says Niagara already has everything it needs to become a geopark. But the application process takes time.
It begins with a self-evaluation spreadsheet, outlining the geological specifics of the region. That’s where Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Perry Hartwick comes in. As a geologist, he is a key member of the task force.
“The UNESCO Geoparks are based on geology,” says Hartwick. “In order to qualify as a geopark, the first thing you have to figure out is do you have globally unique geology that is hard to find anywhere else.”
Hartwick has dug deep into the geological history of the Niagara region, which Platakis says covers five significant geologic time periods. Hartwick has contributed extensively to the task force’s website (niagarapeninsulageopark.com), and is collecting background papers and scholarly research as support for the application. A number of Brock University professors also serve on the volunteer board.
“Being UNESCO,” says Hartwick, “you can imagine there is a lot of paperwork and a lot of boxes that have to be checked. A geopark is composed of a number of geosites around the region. They can be cultural, agricultural, rivers, it’s not just about rocks. But these are the integral makeup of the geopark.”
Both Hartwick and Platakis point to Willowbank in Queenston as a shining example of one of these geosites. “What we noticed is that Queenston had all of these layers in one nice, tidy package,” Hartwick explains. “The geology, the location near the river, the war involvement, an Indigenous travel place, the artifacts that have been uncovered there, and the house itself. On top of that you have the School of Restoration Arts.”
The group decided to use Willowbank as the model geosite for the geopark. They were planning an event there to launch the application process, with a big announcement this weekend, but the coronavirus made that impossible.
Undaunted by the lockdown, the task force has reimagined the geopark as the key element in the recovery of Niagara’s hard-hit tourism industry.
NOTL Regional Coun. Gary Zalepa attended the online meeting. He told The Local that he is open to any option that could work toward bringing Niagara out of the economic challenges posed by COVID-19. However, he adds that he’s not a fan of adding another item onto the government’s menu, and wants to know the task force’s ask when it comes to a budgetary contribution from the Region.
To that end, a figure was not mentioned by Halle during the presentation. Hartwick points out that the task force board consists of volunteers who are all passionate about Niagara. When asked about the cost, he says, “that’s the next step for the task force. We have an idea about the cost for a six-month pilot program, and how much it will cost going forward. But ideally, right now, we want to bring together all who are interested in this, let’s work up a budget together, and see where we want to go with this.”
Platakis remains eager to have Niagara named the fourth UNESCO Global Geopark in the country, and to add it to the list of 147 current such parks in 41 countries around the world. “To me it’s an absolute no-brainer, in terms of how it brings communities together,” he enthuses.
“The possibilities are endless.”
The task force is planning to hold its next online meeting this Friday, July 3.