Update: At press time, The Local believed the Candlelight Stroll would be broadcast live from the Court House steps Friday. Instead, it was pre-recorded Wednesday to ensure there would be no crowd gathered Friday evening. However the chamber will be collecting food for Newark Neighbours at its Queen Street office until 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce is moving ahead with events it can do safely, says president Eduardo Lafforgue, focusing on “keeping our traditions alive,” which, during the pandemic, is more important than ever.
In a recent update to council, Lafforgue stressed the chamber is not advertising in Toronto, or trying to bring visitors from the GTA, Peel or other regions with high numbers of COVID cases to town.
He emphasized he has stopped all advertising outside the Niagara Region. In fact, he said, the tourism organization that provided the funds for the chamber’s marketing campaign during this time of recovery insisted that any advertising at this point be “hyper local,” and that’s what he’s doing.
He laid out what the chamber has accomplished so far, during difficult times, and what he plans to accomplish in the new year.
Celebrating the season began with safely decorating Queen Street, with volunteers “working in their own bubble,” he said.
A 12-foot Christmas tree, donated by the St. Davids Lions, was lit up at the Cenotaph Friday, in time for the holiday festivities. That includes a very scaled-back 31st annual Candlelight Stroll, which will be held with a limited ceremony Friday. Working in partnership with Cogeco and the Town, it will be broadcast from the Court House steps at 7 p.m., without members of the public in attendance. Residents are asked to participate by purchasing candles at local businesses, and lighting them outside their homes.
Some residents have purchased candles for their neighbourhoods, and will be outside singing carols, said Lafforgue, with the proceeds of candle sales funding two programs for offshore farmworkers.
The chamber is also accepting drop-offs of food for Newark Neighbours at its office, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., until Dec. 5.
But Lafforgue’s big news for councillors was that there will be an “icewine experience” in January.
The chamber will host an Icewine Village during two weekends, and an Icewine Trail will be held with activities planned at local wineries throughout the month.
These will provide “the only icewine experience in 2021,” he said.
If nothing changes, he said, there will be tents and ice sculptures on Queen Street, with all tastings by reservation and purchased online, for small groups of people in time blocks of 45 minutes. That will allow 15 minutes for cleaning between each group.
This “luxury experience” has been developed to offer an experience that follows all the safety protocols for guests, team members and the community, he said. The number of guests to the village is being limited to 2,800, nothing near the 12,000 of last year.
Without any revenue from events, such as the galas usually held, and with no sponsors, other than the Town, the chamber is operating with marketing funds and grants from tourism organizations and the Province.
“We won’t have the 12,000 people that went through the village last year, but we will have activities that are very important for economic recovery,” he said.
It was a challenge to put this event together, and to work out contingency plans to allow for any changes in restrictions, or that must be made to hold the event safely, he said.
“Everyone is fighting to survive. We’re keeping our traditions alive with the Icewine Village, and one way or another we’re going to have an Icewine Village, and safety and health will be paramount.”
When asked by council what could be done to help restaurants facing two levels of restrictions, from both the Region and the Province, Lafforgue said what would really help would be the lifting of restrictions, which he views as excessive for the industry.
But the chamber is doing everything it can to ensure restaurants are doing what is expected of them, and following up on the few complaints they have received from patrons about businesses that are not complying.
To fund January’s events, he is hoping for the usual $40,000 from the Town, and a $20,000 loan repayable in February, which has traditionally helped the chamber cover costs ahead of time, such as the expensive ice sculptures.
He also “respectfully asked” council to consider rent relief for 2021. He received notice of rent for the Court House office from the Town for $36,500, and “due to COVID’s drastic reduction in revenue,” is hoping the Town will waive it for one year.
With all revenue-generating events cancelled, “this is very important,” he said.
To help promote Shop Local for NOTL businesses, Lafforgue says he is partnering with the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce on its Shop Local website. It allows NOTL businesses to provide online information about their operations during the pandemic, aligned with current restrictions.