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Apr. 8, 2020 | Wednesday
Editorials and Opinions
Letter: Other communities are watching us, what will we show them?
Downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Rene Bertschi, Skyview Arts Inc.)

Dear editor:

The prettiest town in Canada seems to be dividing itself from the inside. The current “residents against tourism industry” climate scares me. Twelve years ago, I moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a place where everyone cared and respected each other. I now fear we are losing our respectful and welcoming essence over years of accumulated political and budgetary decisions that all unfortunately led to the recent municipal tax increase for all.

I can’t stop myself comparing the current general climate with the famous tension between the Capulets and the Montagues: “Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” We also all know how it ends in a catastrophe before the two clans realize they are not so different after all.

A few points urgently need to be addressed. The accommodation industry (not to say tourism in general) seems to currently be blamed for a lot of our problems. The majority of our business owners, especially accommodation providers, are residents of NOTL as well! Just as everybody else, we all had our municipal taxes increased and we all witnessed the changes in the last few years; we are just as concerned and we do get it.

The current division between “ residents” and “accommodation/tourism industry” seems to be based on old grudges imbedded in our local culture. It is indeed “human” to put the blame on something specific when things go wrong than to try fixing the issues together as a community. We all care and love this town and we all want to preserve its essence. This very “NOTL way of life” is what attracts people in our beautiful corner of the world and this very “essence” must be protected. We can all agree on this.

NOTL is not a big city. Our model is quite different from an urban one and our economy depends heavily on tourism. We are a unique little town and tourism destination; the solutions needed here will have to be well adapted as well. Also, defining people and businesses as “good” or “bad” only feeds into this wave of municipal self-division. Nothing is ever “black or white.” The problems we face can only be solved with true collaboration and understanding. The accommodation industry at large (B&Bs, inns, vacation rentals and hotels included) is an active part of our community, which would certainly be struggling way more than it is now without it. As an example, numerous historical properties across our municipality would most probably not be as well-kept if it wasn’t for the accommodation industry. The possibility for generated income and of tax-deducting a portion of home-related expenses is at the very core of the preservation of these properties, which would otherwise be very costly to maintain.

This idea that a certain kind of accommodation is better than another “for the town” is misinformed as they all serve a different purpose. One erroneous comment I have seen over and over states that “vacation rentals” are somehow “the bad guys” of the accommodation industry. My well-informed assumption is that this concept originated directly from inside the bed and breakfast industry years ago. After being on the board of the BBA for six years, I can tell you first-hand that trying to change this competitive way of thinking has been one of my focuses. A distinction does need to be made between locally-managed properties and others. Licensed and locally-managed properties are not the source of the problems the accommodation industry is being blamed for.

Another big misconception has to do with “Airbnb.” As with other well-known platforms, Airbnb is nothing more than a computer program. Factually, none of these platforms currently asks the user to download a copy of their licence to operate in our municipality. Airbnb and other “hotel booking platforms” are neither good nor bad. It is the individuals using them without getting a town licence who are not following the rules. I would go further and say that some people might not even know or think they need a licence to operate. Some homeowners are still using Airbnb in a way referred to as “home sharing.” Are you aware that the current NOTL short-term rental bylaws do not include a licence category representing the “home sharing” model? The concept has been around since Airbnb’s international expansion started in 2011. 

The only category for an “owner-occupied dwelling” in the bylaws is the “bed and breakfast licence,” which some places are not. One could state that if people don’t view themselves as “a proper bed and breakfast,” they could assume they don’t need a licence at all. Once again, nothing is as “black or white” as many might think. The only way to have a general idea of what is going on is to have been closely involved in the accommodation industry for many years and having dealt with the problems that have arisen along the way.

The solutions needed for NOTL are more complex than simply imposing new rules and new fees/taxes. All of our wallets have already suffered the consequences of such actions. “Easy fixes” are costly and they fail to address the essence of the problems. I’m afraid they are not the type of solutions that will put us back on the right track. NOTL needs a real change this time. New rules? Yes. New intelligently targeted user fees and fines? Let’s figure this out together. Possible tourism-based municipal funding mechanism? Let’s talk. An open collaboration with the tourism industry to make sure we are not killing our own town in the name of protecting it? Essential.

The short-term rental bylaws do need a rewrite and I have already offered to collaborate with the town on this matter. The involvement of the accommodation industry is crucial in making sure the new resulting bylaws make sense for our unique situation for years to come. Some of the comments and “proposed solutions” I have read in our different newspapers and on social media are misinformed and would be disastrous if implemented. 

I know for a fact that other municipalities are currently watching us closely. Communities dealing with similar issues are waiting to see how we will reconcile our differences about simultaneously being a small historic rural town and an international tourism destination. Essentially, our responsibility is greater than we might think. We need to be “the small tourism destination community that all came together and successfully solved their problems in a unique, respectful, imaginative and positive way.”

It is time for all of us to rise above our differences of opinion and start working together toward finding solutions that will still allow NOTL to stay true to its welcoming reputation and historical nature. Time to become this international model and give hope to other municipalities that “it can be done.” I have faith in Niagara-on-the-Lake. If one community can succeed, I believe it is definitely us. 

We are all centre stage and the spotlight had been turned on; what kind of show will we decide to give the world? What do we want NOTL to be known for? Our ability to come together or our current discording ways? Going back to Shakespeare’s prologue again: “ (…) The continuance of their parents’ rage is now the (…) traffic of our stage; The which if you with patient ears attend, what here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.”

I personally am hopeful we can still have a positive ending to our story here. Are you?

David Levesque

President

NOTL Bed & Breakfast Association

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