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Giving hard-hit businesses a hand up

Jenna Morris is the economic development and tourism officer for Woolwich Township. [Bill Atwood]

Waterloo Region’s tourism industry is about to get a huge boost. As part of a $68.5 million relief package for tourism in southern Ontario, the federal government has earmarked a total of $5 million for Regional Tourism Organization 4 (RT04), which  supports the industry in Waterloo, Wellington, Huron and Perth counties.

“We’re immensely grateful for this critical support for the tourism industry. It has been a very hard two years for the tourism industry. People often say the tourism industry was the first hit and the hardest hit coming through the COVID pandemic. And so this support will make an impact for local tourism businesses and organizations both in the short and long term on the road to recovery and reimagination,” said RTO4 executive director Andrea Gardi.

With the funds, RTO4 will provide non-repayable loans between $20,000 to $100,000 for up to 50 per cent of eligible costs for for-profit businesses and up to 100 per cent of eligible costs for not-for-profit organizations and municipalities. Businesses with larger projects apply directly with FedDev Ontario.

With this week’s launch of the application process RTO4 hopes to help the tourism industry find new market opportunities.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunities around culinary tourism. Around Indigenous tourism, I think especially with COVID, people were really excited to explore their own backyard specifically around being outside because that’s where people feel the most comfortable. So I think there’s a big opportunity to increase new experiences or products specifically around the outdoors as well. So whether that’s trails, or other outdoor experiences,” Gardi said.

There are a number of businesses and organizations that are eligible to receive funding including incorporated businesses primarily small- and medium-sized not-for-profit organizations, cooperatives, municipalities, municipal development corporations and post-secondary institutions.

The list of eligible projects include product development, strategic recovery and master planning, downtown core revitalization and infrastructure projects. Projects could have been started as early as April of last year however any funding has to be fully spent by the end of the year. For profit businesses are eligible for up to 50 per cent of the cost of a project, while non-profits can get the full amount funded. Applications are open until May 15.

Because business owners make their living focusing on the day-to-day, it is sometimes hard for them to think long-term, Gardi said.

“I think often people know the main issues [such as] workforce affordable housing and rural transportation. And some of these issues are quite large that can’t be solved by just one individual, one business, one organization. It’s about working together to try to solve some of these issues,” she explained.

Jenna Morris, Woolwich’s economic development and tourism officer, said the pandemic has changed the township’s approach to tourism.

“In general, pre-COVID, a lot of the work in the economic development and tourism office was to support what was already happening, and now it’s really bringing the business operators together to actually support them one on one with their business, as well as find a way to recover. So it’s definitely a lot more hands-on than it was pre-COVID,” she explained.

Morris recently presented Woolwich council with a short-term (through 2023) tourism recovery plan to support the industry coming out of the pandemic. This plan has six areas of focus including business support, arts and culture, culinary and agri-tourism, year-round tourism, infrastructure and marketing and brand development.

However Morris acknowledged there are some business that don’t “want handouts.”

“Some of them are faring it on their own and they’re finding ways to come back. But the majority of them I’d say are looking for support,” she said.

The funding programs are more than simply throwing money at the problems, Morris added.

“The grants are targeted in general to support some of the focus areas that ambassador groups and organizations such as the tourism governance board of Ontario have decided to bring their voices together to say, ‘hey, province, or ‘hey, feds, we need funding for this need,’” she said.

Gardi echoed that sentiment.

“I think this is a great opportunity for businesses. I think it will make a big difference. Do I think it’s all that is needed? No, but I think there’s many other initiatives that all levels of government can and should be working on, but I think this is a great first step.”

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