Alison Robinson has remained busy since retiring as the lead realtor at Lake District Realty a few years ago. Aside from extensive family commitments and other activities, she has also kept up her involvement with the local business community, helping out when she has had time. A little over a year ago, with her husband Wayne, and neighbours Rosemary and Bill Bowick and Ken Fisher, she organixed a meet and greet event at the Sharbot Lake Retirement Centre to introduce the owner, Andrew Kovacs, to the local business community.
“When we were putting together an invitation list, we found that there are over 120 businesses in the vicinity of Sharbot Lake,” she recalled this week, during her remarks at the third semi-annual Sharbot Lake business group meet and greet this week at the Crossings Pub.
At that first event, about 100 people showed up, and during a go around doing introductions, the business owners talked a bit about what brought them to Sharbot Lake to open a business and how they felt about the community. The stories were very particular, but a theme emerged. They all said that the support of the local community had been crucial to them at some point in their business development. Something about those short heart felt testimonials, coupled with the overall energy in the room, led the group of friends who had co-sponsored the event, to start thinking about harnessing some of that energy. After a summer meet and greet in July, which introduced Greg and Arlette Rodgers, the owners of the Rockhill B&B, a business group started to form.
In a year end letter summing up the development of the group, Alison Robinson described a September strategy meeting aimed at beginning to look at the future business climate in Sharbot Lake and vicinity.
This is what she wrote, in part:
“17 people representing over 120 businesses met to strategize on Sharbot Lake’s economic development. We described our current situation as being on the cusp of change. While we continue to serve as a magnet for cottagers and tourists from around the world, one way or another, the next phases of development for Highway 7 and expansion of tourism related businesses will tell our tale.
After that September meeting, the first business meeting of the new group was organised for November. At that November meeting, some concrete measures aimed at developing the tourist potential in the region with Sharbot Lake as a hub community, were discussed. One them is a spring tourism conference engaging about 40 participants to establish a working relationship with local tourist related businesses. Greg Rodgers brought the idea to the group, and he has taken a leadership role in developing the event. Central Frontenac Township, Frontenac County and the Ontario Highland Tourism Organization – “Come Wander”. OHTO have all been approached and are getting behind the event.
At this week’s third meet and greet, which was sponsored by Bill Everett of B.E.E. Sanitation, Alison Robinson spoke about the history of the new group, as did event MC Ken Fisher, and then Greg Rodgers brought an update into the planning for the tourism conference.
Before getting into the details, Rodgers talked about how his thinking about running a B&B in Sharbot Lake has developed in the 18 months since purchasing the Rockhill B&B with Arlette.
“At first, we though of ourselves as running a B&B, pure and simple. It started to changed when I realised that we were attracting people from all over the world to our B&B. We have had visitors from 21 countries, including all of the continents with the exception of Antarctica,” he said. “I now am proud to think of us as tourist operators.”
Last fall, at the urging of Alison Vandervelde, who is half of the County of Frontenac Economic Development department, Rodgers attended an Ontario Highlands Tourism Summit in Haliburton.
Apart from seeing first hand how business in Haliburton and elsewhere in Eastern Ontario were working together to develop tourism in their region, he also saw how powerful and inspirational the stories told by tourism innovators could be. He decided he would try to bring that kind of experience to the business community in Sharbot Lake.
With help from a steering committee, a one-day conference has taken form. It is set for May the 4th at Camp Kennebec and will feature a couple of speakers and an opportunity for 40 or 50 tourist related businesses to talk seriously about the future of the region, and what they can do to take advantage of the natural beauty and build a stronger tourism industry,
“I met with someone today over coffee, another tourist operator and I told him I thought this region could be the ‘next place’. He told me that he thought the same thing when he came to the area, 20 years ago. This time, I want us to make sure we make it happen, in our own way,” Rodgers said.
The final speaker of the evening was Kelly Pender, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of Frontenac County. During his municipal career, Pender has worked as the CAO in the towns of Perth and Huntsville. He was in Huntsville when the G7 summit of 2010 was being organised.
He said that one of the initiatives that Frontenac County has undertaken, is to integrate the economic development and planning departments.
“We have seen increases in planning applications in the order of 30% per cent in recent years in both Central and North Frontenac, and making the process work for people who want to invest here is a major effort at the county and township levels.”
He also said that two transportation issues could have a drastic impact on the development of Sharbot Lake as a tourism and business hub community.
“One is the development of Highway 7. The long-term plan is for it to be expanded to four lanes, and for the communities south and north of the highway in Central and North Frontenac, it will make a huge difference if it becomes a 4 lane highway like the 416, or if it becomes a road that is more like the Thousand Islands Parkway,” he said.
“Now is the time for the business community to create a vision for Highway 7 and the communities that surround it to make sure it brings people here rather than rolling through like a 400 series highway.”
Similarly, the impact of a potential for a high frequency VIA rail train, which he describes as a 50-50 proposition, will be vastly different if there is a station in Sharbot Lake or not.
“If the Federal government decides to fund a train line, it will happen. They have the power to get it through. The only question in that case is, will it stop here or not. If they do approve it, from what I’ve been told, there will be a one-year planning window from the announcement until the plans are drawn up. That could start this April or some other time, but they like to invest in willing communities, so a group like this needs to help make the business case for a station here. What can Sharbot Lake do to make the case that people will stop here?”