After eight weeks as president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, Minerva Ward introduced herself to council Monday night, and spoke about what she has been working on since taking the job.
But first, she gave a brief introduction of herself, having a varied background in tourism in the Caribbean, from there to Vancouver, B.C, then to the Northwest Territories and in the Arctic, before coming to NOTL.
She began by focusing on stakeholder engagement, she told councillors.
“I think it is critical for me to listen to the needs of our industry, businesses, and to listen and learn and to speak to people,” chiefly listening, she stressed. “So I’ve been doing quite a bit of that.”
She has also been meeting and listening to key contacts and stakeholders, she added, and has been learning about the region and the town, and focusing on raising the visibility and relevance of the chamber by providing timely and useful information to members, the business community and the wider residential community.
She has also been advocating on behalf of Chamber members on areas of concern, such as, at the local level, short-term rental issues, At the provincial level she is dealing with the consistency of the rollout of the municipal accommodation tax, and, at the federal level, the issues of removing border restrictions, and changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, as a tool to ease the current labour shortage in the hospitality industry.
“I believe in being a sober and reasoned voice for the tourism industry, and of course responding to business needs,” such as the recent job fair to deal with labour shortages in the tourism industry and the community, but also across the country, across North America, and across other industries.
She spoke of working with industry partners such as the town, Parks Canada, and Niagara Parks Commission, on preparations for the upcoming tourism season.
“I think when we partner together, we can achieve so much more than when we operate on our own,” she said, citing the Ambassadors program of providing information to tourists on Queen Street as “one great example of the talent, spirit of volunteerism, and cooperation that came out of the Shaw Guild. It was started by the town, and then handed over to the chamber.”
Over the short to medium term, the key priority areas of focus for the chamber are working with the town of the rollout of the municipal accommodation tax, which has its first meeting of the governance committee set; and working, also with the town, on the development of a tourism strategy.
That would include addressing some of the conflicts between tourism and residents, she said. “NOTL is a living, breathing organism, with tourism and residents and businesses occupying the same space.”
Developing a tourism strategy will provide the opportunity for stakeholder engagement, to articulate issues and iron them out. It also has to address the “carrying capacity of a destination,” and not just in terms of numbers, but the “psychological carrying capacity as well,” discussing the right approach for a sustainable model of tourism through the tourism strategy.
Stakeholder engagement “should be a huge part of the development of our strategy,” Ward said.
“I think we get more done when we work together, forming alliances and partnerships.
I think we all want what’s best for the town, our businesses and our residents, and I think we can achieve that if we work together.”
When asked about balancing “the few vocal voices with the majority” representing the conflicts between tourism and residents, Ward responded, “we have to amplify the voices of the majority. People need to understand that a lot of the amenities and businesses that exist only exist because they’re largely tourism-driven, and by tourism businesses.”
What makes NOTL great as a place to live is also what makes great as a place to visit, she said. “I don’t see that changing, and I don’t think anybody wants it to change.”
She said the top issue she has heard is about coming out of COVID. “I get a sense of optimism that businesses are hoping for a good, strong year. We already see that on a good, sunny day, and it’s only going to grow.”
However, the struggle is to find staff, with a regional unemployment rate of 5.7 per cent “which means basically full employment, and everybody who wants a job can find a job.”
The solution, she says, is to start looking outside of Canada to source employees.
Our industry, tourism and hospitality, were the hardest hit,” she said, with businesses opening and closing through lockdowns. The labour shortage existed before COVID, which has exacerbated the problem, Ward said, as people have left the instability and seasonality of tourism, and went to other jobs in areas such as distribution and transportation, with a more reliable source of income.
To a question from Coun. Gary Burroughs about meeting with town staff, Ward said, “I have already. I’ve met the lovely Marnie (Cluckie, town CAO), and I’ve been introduced to some of the staff. I anticipate a fabulous working relationship. “I think there’s a good meeting of the mind,” she added. “I see us working very, very well and very closely together.”
Coun. Alan Bisback suggested, and received a positive response to regular meetings being set up between town staff and the president of the Chamber of Commerce.