The Chamber strikes back

(Pam Robertson makes her pitch to city council.)

There was much about last night’s city council decision to implement a hotel tax in Brockville  that was not very surprising.

Council’s unanimous approval is one of these things. It was clear early on that, given the power to require hoteliers to do something they’ve been refusing to do for a decade, council would pounce.

It’s also not at all surprising that some would either object to this decision or seek to have it mitigated. And so, bed and breakfast owner Ida Duc appealed to council to have the size of the tax reduced (which isn’t going to happen) or to craft exemptions for the breakfast portion of a B&B’s operations (which could happen).

But the one thing that did catch me off-guard (though it probably shouldn’t have) was the Brockville and District Chamber of Commerce’s attempt to seize the moment decisively by appropriating for itself the entirety of the coming revenue.

The existing tourism budget does not ensure tourism’s sustainability for the city,” chamber executive director Pam Robertson told councillors, after outlining how the chamber’s tourism office is the only universal and objective entity to promote tourism for the benefit of all operators.

Please give us the opportunity to grow tourism,” she added.

(Full disclosure here, again: A member of my family has worked at said tourism office as a summer student.)

The chamber’s tourism contract with the city, which runs until the end of 2020, costs the city approximately $188,000 per year.

There was always a prevailing feeling among city councillors that this amount is not enough, and at least part of the hotel tax revenue should go to boost the chamber’s tourism promotion efforts.

And a majority were in agreement that all of the hotel tax revenue should go, in one way or another, to promote or enhance tourism.

But how to achieve this, what Mayor David Henderson calls the “allocation discussion,” is far from clear cut.

The coming talks over the hotel tax “implementation plan” will see a number of entities vying for a chunk of that change, from the Aquatarium to the Railway Tunnel to, potentially, festival organizers.

Why, then, such a bold move by the chamber to try to seize all the cash from the outset?

The answer may lie in the list above, specifically the A-word.

In late November, the Aquatarium’s controversial $400,000 ask came with one suggestion that had the chamber of commerce folks nervously packing the council chamber audience for the ensuing discussion.

The Aquatarium would like the opportunity to propose taking the lead role in providing all tourism related services for the city of Brockville in the belief that duplication can be avoided, cost savings can be achieved, and more measurable results delivered,” noted the text of the Aquatarium committee’s presentation at the time.

That suggestion comes as city officials consider demolishing the current Market Street West home of the Brockville tourism office. Why not relocate the whole thing in the brand-new Aquatarium building?

We can expect more on that subject when the Aquatarium folks return, possibly in February, with a more specific plan.

But with that in the backdrop, it’s not surprising to see the chamber folks, who have been delivering tourism services now for more than a decade, make a pre-emptive dash for the cash.

One can hardly blame them. To use a different metaphor, Robertson’s presentation was a worthy riposte to the Aquatarium’s thrust.

Still, in the allocation discussion to come, one doubts they will get all they want.

The battle over whether to have a hotel tax is now over, but that was just Act One, folks. The real fun is just about to start – so book your rooms.