The Mayor of Fort Smith says the community should “give up” on its pursuit of tourism dollars and look elsewhere for means of revitalizing the town’s economy.
At a meeting on Tuesday, Fred Daniels told council colleagues: “I’ve been in this business for a long time and I’ve heard this around the table for a long time: tourism, tourism. Well, it’s over. Tourism is over. I’m sorry.”
Councillors had been examining a strategic marketing plan – drawn up by consultants at a cost of approximately $50,000 – to help the town attract more visitors, residents, and businesses.
“We’re always talking about the same things. It’s never worked for 15 years. It’s not going to work,” said Daniels.
“It’s time to give up on it. There comes a time when you really have to call it quits and focus somewhere else.”
The mayor said he would prefer to explore ways of securing jobs for the town’s young people in Alberta’s oilsands industries.
“What I would have rather done … is take that money and why don’t we go to Fort McMurray, the oil and gas business? How many of our guys could go over there and get jobs?” Daniels said.
“At one point, Fort McMurray did come to Smith and they were going to do fly-in, fly-out for our younger guys. Those are the ones we need to look after, too, the younger ones. They’re the next ones that are going to invest in this community. We’ve got to have something there for them. Oil and gas is great money.
“Some people may not like it. Some say it’s dirty money, right? Well, in the ’80s we all had our shot and we lived pretty good. Now, I think, we owe the next generation the shot we had in the ’80s. You have to excuse me if I want to take them somewhere else.”
Road south prioritized
Tourism has been virtually at a standstill in the Northwest Territories since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Public health measures including limits on the travel of non-residents mean tourists can only enter in specific circumstances, such as if travelling directly to a remote lodge where they can safely isolate away from communities.
Whether those measures will remain in place this summer is unclear. Even so, some tour operators have said they will shut down rather than face the prospect of a third summer with few if any out-of-territory guests.
Yet Fort Smith community leaders feel the town’s struggle to master the tourism trade began well before the pandemic.
Fort Smith senior administrator Cynthia White, who defended aspects of the strategic marketing plan following the mayor’s comments, acknowledged: “We haven’t had a lot of success.”
However, White said, the report included “good information” about who the town needs to pursue and how to market to those people.
“It’s not about tourism as a sole means of economic development,” White said. “It is about attracting young residents and finding new entrepreneurial opportunities for young families to come to the community, especially as we seem to still be losing GNWT jobs.”
The report provided, White said, “a lot of amazing background data that we will use for all kinds of things.”
Mayor Daniels and deputy mayor Kevin Heron both expressed concern that the report had been compiled by external consultants rather than Fort Smith businesses. White said the consultants had been appointed following an open request for proposals and there were no local submissions.
“This is not the kind of work that you’re going to find people in Fort Smith that are able to do,” Leonard Tuckey told fellow councillors.
“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of research. For $50,000, I don’t think it was a lot of money to spend for this report. We might find some direction here.”
Councillors found common ground in their conclusion that an all-season road south of the community, connecting Fort Smith to Alberta year-round, would greatly help the town’s quest to develop its economy.
Council is now expected to identify pursuit of that road as a priority.