Stirring up debate on tourism

I read Joan Spencer’s letter regarding the new Fairfield Inn with interest.

I read Joan Spencer’s letter regarding the new Fairfield Inn with interest. This development raises interesting questions about Vernon’s strategy for the tourism industry.  Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we even have one?

There are a couple of big questions.

One – are we trying to address all segments of the tourism market or just sell to one narrow section of the market?

Two  – does Vernon want to be in the tourism business?

Let me explain what I mean by this. My comments are not intended to be critical of all the hard work that has gone into development projects in Vernon. But I do believe we need to manage development more carefully in future if we want to promote Vernon as a vibrant tourism destination and create lasting employment growth in the sector.

Our tourism products aim squarely at the budget-conscious family customer. We seem to be falling over ourselves to accommodate boaters and RV owners from Alberta, who arrive in Vernon loaded with cheap supplies of food, gasoline and beer all bought at home, before they cross the border. Nothing wrong with that business, but the average spend per day for these customers must be at the lower end of the scale.

If we look at our accommodations in town or our cultural attractions, what do we have to offer to compete with Delta’s Okanagan Grand resort or the many shops, restaurants and lakefront that are in walking distance of many motels and hotels in central Kelowna or Kamloops’ downtown core?

Sparkling Hill and Predator Ridge seem like a step in the right direction, even if they are a fair ways from town.   These operations attract well-heeled guests and we need to work hard to offer attractions that tempt their guests to spend more of their  time and money in Vernon while they are here.

If we want to be in the tourism business then, over time, we need to make our wonderful town a more attractive and tempting place to stop in. The northern end offers sprawl, before a sudden transition to the  “anytown USA” strip development of 27th Street.  If you come in from the south, after a quick flash of green at Polson Park, you are greeted with a strip mall on the right and a bank, a gas station and a discount… There’s nothing wrong with any of these businesses but how do these entrances to our fine city communicate to the visitor the many attractions that Vernon has to offer? How were zoning and development incentives planned to make our city an attractive place in which to stop as you pass through? Or did it all just “happen” with no grand plan in mind?

Such ventures don’t all need tax increases and huge investments to get them off the ground. We will have an empty library building soon. Why not move the art gallery from its hiding place under a parking lot and use the additional space as workshops for local artists and the like, so they can sell more product to visitors and drive our local economy?

Chasing tourism dollars means hard work and tough choices on development and zoning. And it needs a will to compete and win business away from nearby communities. If we simply choose development proposals based on their short-term generation of construction jobs and increased property taxes, then I am no tourism expert, but I don’t think it’s going to happen! I’m not sure we’re ready to make these calls as a community and I have to agree with Joan Spencer that building another chain hotel sandwiched between a major highway and a backdrop of big box stores on Anderson Way is not the way to go.

If I’ve offended you with this letter, my apologies. I intended no slight on anyone but I would like to stir up more debate about tourism in Vernon.  It seems to be one of the few industries we can grow here and we need every job for our young people we can create if we want to staunch the flow of talent and energy out of the Valley to the coast or to Alberta.

And before you ask, I have absolutely nothing to do with tourism or hospitality or indeed the development business.  I am just a resident interested in smart growth that increases opportunity while limiting urban sprawl and further loss of the beauty around us.

Ritchie Leslie