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Tofino mayor says province’s RMI funding is “critical”

“I don’t think I can overemphasize how important the program is for Tofino.”
The provincial government’s Resort Municipality Initiative helps local governments pay for needed tourism infrastructure, like beach accesses and trails.

Drew Penner

Special to the Westerly

It was on display as SUP competitors aiming for the PanAm Games in Peru rinsed the saltwater from their suits, during last weekend’s 2017 SUP Nationals. It’s what allowed the throngs to line up for a free ride all summer, surfboard under arm, outside the visitor centre across from Cox Bay. It invited construction workers to Main Street and Hellesen Drive for upgrades.

Now, its life has been prolonged but, the question is, for how long?

“I don’t think I can overemphasize how important the program is for Tofino,” said Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne, of the Resort Municipality Initiative, which the province extended by three months last week.

“On average, the Resort Municipality Initiative grant is equivalent to 20-22 per cent of our municipal taxation.”

Tofino will get another $154,000 from the $10.5 million annual pot that’s divvied up between 14 tourism-based communities in B.C. from Fernie to Revelstoke to pay for tourism-related infrastructure.

That means, in the end, Tofino will get the $616,858 it had been hoping to secure from Victoria via the fund.

Money had only been promised until the end of December – three months short of a full fiscal year.

Officials from the District of Ucluelet said the province confirmed it would receive a total of $196,362 for the full year through the program.

Beyond March 23 next year, things are unclear. So local officials are working hard to get the new NDP government up to speed on the just how vital the money is to the West Coast’s vacation-based economy.

The B.C. tourism sector generated $15.7 billion in 2016 as the province saw double digit increases in the numbers of people visiting from Mexico, Australia, China, the United Kingdom and India.

This August, there were 18,500 more travellers arriving in B.C. than last August, with much of the increases coming from Mexico, Germany, Australia, France and the U.S.

Many Tofino businesses reported a significant boost again this summer, at times as high as 30 per cent.

“So if we’re a beach town and visitors come to us and we don’t provide washrooms at the beach, then that’s not really great from the visitor’s perspective,” Osborne said.

“But asking local residents to pay for that seems like a stretch. The program recognizes that challenge and that’s why they make the investment.”

So the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture sets money aside to help places like Ucluelet, which is starting to feel the super-heated pulse of international tourism, and Tofino, which has a visitor to resident rate of 5-1 according to a Clayoquot Biosphere Trust report.

The Beach Bus was introduced in 2012 on a test basis and is supported by this RMI program, for example. Ridership has soared, rising 44 per cent from 2015 to 2016.

Tofino has also used the money to improve beach access, upgrade the downtown core, and build new washrooms and showers at both North and South Chesterman beaches.

“We couldn’t do that without the Resort Municipality Initiative funding,” Osborne said.

The province isn’t saying much about its plans, if any, for the program.

In a statement to the Westerly, Lisa Beare, Minister Tourism, Arts and Culture, said it’s something the government will be looking into.

“My ministry has extended the funding by three months, from December 31, 2017 through March 31, 2018,” she said.

“I will be meeting with the mayors of municipalities in coming months to consider options moving forward.”

Osborne has been spending a lot of her time over the past couple years lobbying the province to renew the program, even co-chairing a team of 14 mayors, along with Sun Peaks mayor Al Raine, that lobbied Liberal officials. The efforts began anew at this year’s Union of BC Municipalities Convention with new NDP leaders, deadline looming.

“That’s coming up really quick,” she said. “This is a really critical program for Tofino, Ucluelet and the 12 other resort municipalities.”

Sarah Curtis, Cox Bay Beach Resort manager says visitors definitely notice the beautification and amenities.

“I don’t know that guests know where the money is coming from exactly,” she said, “but they do appreciate the upgrades.”

When tourists return, they often make a point of how much Tofino has improved, she added.

And it’s something that pleases long-time residents like Michael Hogan.

“You can’t turn back the clock,” said the retiree, who’s lived in Tofino for 28 years.

“We’re not going back to fishing and logging. Tourism is the answer.”

He said his friends who drive the shuttle have told him how the Resort Municipality Initiative makes a big difference to people’s lives. Hogan likes how it means tourists can leave their cars at the resorts.

However, some observers say such tourism promotion and services fuel an influx of visitors local governments don’t have the resources to deal with. That can be a real problem, Osborne says, explaining that last year, as hotel owners collected a million dollars to promote the Tofino brand, the overall amount for funding tourism-related infrastructure remains capped. She wants the ceiling removed.

“That’s been tougher to take,” she said, referring to the one-third boost in destination marketing tax communities just got the ability to charge.

“Every year in Tofino we’re more and more successful than the last year…The money that we get to market the town goes up, but the money we’re getting to keep the promises we’re making is not going up.”