Tourist centre likely to close

By Chad Ingram

Haliburton County will likely be closing its tourist information centre on Highway 35.

It’s just a matter of when.

Members of the county’s tourism committee received a report on the future of the centre from tourism director Amanda Virtanen during a Jan. 13 committee meeting.

The county has leased the building which is owned by the Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce and located along the highway in Minden for several years.

Its future has been discussed in recent years alternatives including an offer from the Haliburton Forest of a log building. However that option would have required the purchase of property. While the Highway 35 property that houses the county’s EMS base was considered it was determined the location was not suitable.

Options in the report received Wednesday included carrying on with the status quo seeking a new location within the next year or calling it quits with the information centre as of May 1 moving the county’s tourist information clerk to the municipality’s office building on Newcastle Street.

The centre is used by visitors to get directions and pick up maps and brochures.

Foot traffic at the centre has dropped Virtanen said at least partially due to the public’s ability to find tourism information online.

Last year there were 3700 visitors to the building 30 per cent of whom Virtanen said were there solely to use the washroom.

The cost to operate the facility – exclusive of the salary of the tourism information clerk – was approximately $61200. That included the wages of summer students the lease and other operating costs.

Excluding the visitors who came just to use the washroom Virtanen said this meant the cost for each customer engagement at the centre last year was $23.58 versus the .0003 cent per customer cost of each digital consumer impression the county makes online.

“Would we ever spend $62000 on an ad that reaches 3000 people?” Virtanen put it to committee members.

Noting that other small communities have been closing visitor information centres Virtanen said distribution of guides and maps could be done out of the county office as well as the county’s library branches.

She said the county’s Haliburton Highlands Roots clothing line is already sold on the Internet and could also be sold at locations of partner businesses and organizations throughout the county.

Virtanen noted that part of her department’s mandate is to “create demand for the Haliburton Highlands” and that people who do enter the info centre are here already.

Most councillors seemed supportive of closing the centre.

“Certainly I think we’re moving into the 21st century” said Dysart et al Reeve Murray Fearrey noting that most people now do their travel research online and that people who enter the centre are already in the community. “It’s just not serving its purpose anymore.”

Fearrey said an elaborate visitors’ centre if it was feasible would be another matter but he didn’t see much point in keeping the small facility open.

“You’re becoming a victim of your own success” Minden Hills Reeve Brent Devolin told Virtanen indicating the digital shift the county has taken since she came on board nearly three years ago meant that fewer people had use for the centre.

Like many Devolin said he now finds all the travel and tourist information he requires while travelling online.

“I don’t go in to any of those kiosks” Devolin said.

It was the same story for Algonquin Highlands Reeve and County Warden Carol Moffatt.
“Anymore I don’t go into them” she said.

Moffatt did note however that the county needed to be careful not to alienate seniors who may not be computer-savvy and noted that the county building does not provide ample parking.

Highlands East Deputy-reeve Suzanne Partridge said when she is travelling “The only reason I use the visitor centre is for the washroom.”

“Tim Hortons are everywhere” Fearrey said.

“I travel extensively and I use them all the time” said committee member Bruce Ballentine who stressed that people at least needed a kiosk where they could pick up information.

Devolin suggested having self-serve kiosks along highways although Moffatt pointed out such kiosks were once operated by the now-defunct Haliburton Highlands Trails and Tours Network.

Moffatt said the concept was outdated and stressed that even self-serve kiosks required staff to stock them with material. She noted they are also susceptible to vandalism.

Ultimately the committee voted to forgo any recommendation and defer the conversation to a full meeting of county council Jan. 27.