Uxbridge tourism: The Plan

The first two articles in the Cosmos’s series on Uxbridge’s tourism industry looked at the results of a survey the Cosmos conducted of 50 average Uxbridgers. First, what did they see as Uxbridge’s top attractions, and ‘undiscovered gems’? Second, what did they think were the challenges to future tourism development? The third piece looked at the various players, governmental and private, who develop and promote tourism in Uxbridge; how do they work together, and what do they cost the taxpayer?

This week the Cosmos examines one of the key joint efforts of those players: an official plan for bringing more visitors to the township. With the primary partnership of Central Counties Tourism, an agency of the provincial government, the last plan was drafted in 2019, and adopted by Township council later that year (pre-pandemic) as a blueprint for action beginning in 2020. Subsequent to last fall’s municipal election, a new council, the Tourism Advisory Committee and a lead staff person (the part-time tourism coordinator), will update the plan this year. But for now, let’s examine the elements of the 2020 plan, and the progress made in meeting its objectives.

First, a review of the challenges mentioned by survey respondents; how does the plan propose to tackle them? They are grouped here under eight key themes:

Lack of accommodation A less than attractive downtown Need for greater cooperation among visitor-oriented businesses Need for greater diversity of restaurants and shops Need for more events Need for more volunteers Build on what’s working Think outside the box in marketing

The 2020 plan was developed by a working group including reps from Central Counties Tourism, Durham Tourism, Township council, the Tourism Advisory Committee, the BIA, the retail and restaurant sectors, and key attractions like the heritage railway, the Lucy Maud Montgomery Society and the Historical Centre. The plan has four core objectives:

Maintain and enhance the physical municipal infrastructure to complement the ‘Trail Capital of Canada’ visitor experience and prepare for growth. Support and enhance existing tourism assets/products to drive additional visitation. Engage businesses/organizations and residents to collaborate and embrace a visitor-centric approach to strengthen the social infrastructure supporting tourism development. Collaborate with tourism-related businesses/organizations to collect visitor data to provide a clear view of the number of visitors and the quality of visits.

The first objective, maintaining or enhancing physical infrastructure to attract visitors and ensure they have a positive experience, would appear to address the first two challenges: the lack of accommodation and a downtown in need of an extreme makeover. The plan also talks about the need for more parking at key attractions, and for public restrooms both downtown and at the trailheads.

The Township’s downtown revitalization plan, which includes tourism as a key driver, will be the subject of the next article in this series. The proposal to build a hotel on the Wooden Sticks golf course site is a great encouragement, with the cautionary note that accommodation needs to be priced to appeal to a wide range of visitors. As for public restrooms, the ones at the library are now available to all visitors, not just library patrons, and the library hours in the summer will be extended with that in mind. Porta-potties are now installed at many trailheads in the southern forests, and with the encouragement of the Township, the owners of those trails are now asking visitors to pay for parking in order to recover the costs, which also cover other improvements like benches and increased snow clearing. Many survey respondents questioned this strategy; will the fees turn away more visitors than these amenities attract?

The plan’s second objective, to support or enhance existing tourism assets, would appear to address challenges 4 and 5 in the list above: the need for more events, and for a greater diversity of shops and restaurants. The plan also talks a lot about marketing and how it’s designed, which brings up the eighth challenge above, the need to think outside the box in promotion. Uxbridge may have worked hard to become the Trail Capital of Canada, but it’s so much more than that. Our survey respondents, in their listing of ‘undiscovered gems’, cited our historical attractions as being the most neglected. The Lucy Maud Montgomery site in Leaskdale has received a lot of attention from Central Counties in the last few years, but the same cannot be said of the Foster Memorial, a unique architectural attraction, or the Historical Centre, which has a multitude of period buildings and artifacts to be discovered. The Lucy Maud Montgomery Trail, accompanied by a podcast developed in 2021, does include the Foster and museum among its stops.

In the Cosmos article on the challenges facing Uxbridge’s tourism development, it was suggested the Music Hall and the events occurring within it, as elements deserving more promotion. A recent community theatre production there, Rent, attracted hundreds of visitors over a two-week span, mostly because of relentless social media marketing by the theatre group itself. Perhaps the municipal and regional tourism organizations could help similar groups and organizations understand how they too can broaden their marketing reach to achieve such high attendance results. The Central Counties web site, for example, includes a short course in social media marketing.

The plan’s third objective, to encourage businesses, organizations and residents to develop a more visitor-oriented vision and strengthen the social infrastructure, is relevant to challenges 3 and 6 above: the need for better cooperation among businesses and attractions, and the need for more volunteers.

To take the second issue first, it’s important to note that the tourism plan was adopted just before the pandemic ground almost everything to a halt. Predictably, trail usage went up, way up, as did participation in a lot of outdoor activities. What other choice was there? But once they’d walked the trails, visitors had nowhere else to go. All other attractions and businesses suffered badly, and some closed for good. During the pandemic, in an attempt to keep businesses afloat, some events like the Holiday Trail featured curbside pickup. Things rebounded somewhat late in 2021, and much more last year, but still haven’t reached pre-pandemic levels. And that’s particularly true of volunteerism. Many Uxbridge attractions and events rely almost exclusively on volunteers for day to day operations. Lucy Maud Montgomery’s home in Leaskdale, as an example, has long used summer students to conduct tours and research exhibits. But it has never had a full-time, year-round staff person. The site is an international draw, with the possibility of attracting many more visitors than it does. What would be the pros and cons of adding such a person? Several years ago, the York-Durham Heritage Railway deliberately pivoted from a volunteer-run organization to a staff-led business. It is now a top tourist attraction in the township, but the change has not come without controversy.

An annual volunteer fair, where interested citizens could talk to all the various organizations looking for help, could perhaps restore the current deficit. And more public recognition of volunteers would also aid the cause.

With the Township’s relatively recent, but now very strong focus on tourism, Uxbridge stands on the cusp of fundamentally changing the nature of the municipality’s economy. Only a decade ago, a prominent member of council stated in public that he doubted tourism would ever play a significant role in Uxbridge. He might rethink that statement today. But what exactly is Uxbridge’s potential, and how can it be achieved?

That segues to the fourth objective of the plan, to collect verifiable data not only on the numbers of visitors to Uxbridge, but how they feel about their visit, every aspect of it. It’s very difficult to plan in a vacuum. One might start by defining “visitor” or “tourist.” In the first article, the Cosmos simply reiterated the dictionary definition, someone who makes a “jaunt or excursion.” The word excursion implies a trip of some distance. But how long a distance?

The provincial government defines a tourist as someone coming from more than 40 kilometres away. Forty kilometres from where? A visitor from the northern reaches of Markham would not be 40 kilometres from the Walker Woods, but she’s definitely that far from the Leaskdale Manse. A less confusing definition might be to call anyone who’s not a “local” – a local being someone who resides and pays taxes in the township – a visitor or tourist. So if you bring in money from beyond our municipal boundary, even if you’re just in Claremont or Pefferlaw, and you leave that money here, you’re contributing to the tourist economy. That seems pretty black and white. In any collection of quantitative or qualitative information, the first question asked is where they live. If it’s anywhere else than the Township of Uxbridge, the respondent is a visitor.

Despite being thrown a curveball by COVID-19, the 2020 plan laid a strong foundation for future action, and progress appears to have been made on a number of fronts. But work will begin soon on an update to it, what Central Counties calls a “refresh.” Who contributes to that effort will be very important. In their brainstorming, the members of the 2019 working group came up with an impressive array of solid ideas for the development of the Uxbridge tourism industry. But the membership of the 2023 group could be even more comprehensive. For example, no one from the agricultural sector was included last time. Or from the travel industry itself. Uxbridge has two busy, long-established travel agencies. Admittedly, they deal mostly with outgoing tourists, but they might have some very good ideas about the incoming trade as well.

Uxbridge has the potential to be a significant beneficiary of the upcoming post-pandemic boom in tourism, from nearby and far away.

Conrad Boyce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Uxbridge Cosmos