Proposed winter festival for Huntsville gets council support

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Community organizations have come up with a new festival aimed at creating more winter recreation opportunities for residents, attracting more visitors to the area, and driving more revenue opportunities for local businesses.

The event would involve unique and interactive light and sound installations in key areas of Huntsville as well as winter activities. It would be a collaborative effort between Huntsville Festival of the Arts, the Huntsville/Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Huntsville Business Improvement Area (BIA), as well as the Huntsville Municipal Accommodation Tax Association and the Town of Huntsville.

The idea behind the event is to provide a host of winter activities spanning Huntsville’s downtown, River Mill Park, Muskoka Heritage Place, and Lion’s Lookout while also attracting more tourism dollars to the community, particularly as many accommodation providers and businesses have suffered due to COVID.

“Of all the things that we’ve had a chance to work on collaboratively, this excites me more than anything else,” Jesse Hamilton with the Huntsville Municipal Accommodation Tax Association, as well as general manager of Deerhurst Resort, told Huntsville Council at its November 23 meeting.

He said the intent is to launch the event this winter; the exact timing would depend on COVID-19 restrictions. In terms of the lighting installations, those can easily be pushed back to another date. Hamilton also noted that the idea is to turn the project into an annual event.

“[There’ll be] lots of opportunity for entertainment and really engaging people specifically,” added Huntsville/Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce executive director Kelly Haywood, referring to potential activities such as wagon rides, dog sled races, ice sculptures, and snow forts.

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Haywood also told council that news of a grant for $290,000 from the Reconnect Festival and Event Program through the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, had been received that morning. She said the development of outdoor trails at Muskoka Heritage Place for Nordic skiing and/or snowshoeing was also being considered. “I think we need to position ourselves as a winter destination,” said Haywood.

In terms of COVID-19, “nothing we’re going to do won’t be without this huge consideration of safety for our residents, safety for our visitors, and ensuring the timing is right,” said Haywood. “It’s going to be most important from a COVID recovery perspective for our business community to see something happen in Huntsville.”

Organizers were hoping for a contribution from the Town of $88,156, comprising a $41,500 cash donation and $46,656 in in-kind donations for things like rental deferrals, electrical infrastructure, and staff time.

“It looks fabulous. I love the idea of a brand new product to attract people to Huntsville but like everybody else, we’re worried about attracting crowds during the pandemic… that’s a fine line we have to walk,” said Huntsville Councillor Bob Stone.

“You basically had me at successful grant. That’s a lot of money that you guys got and I think that’s great. I have to say I’m excited about this. I don’t think it’s a big ask to the Town and it’s got longevity to it… I’m hopeful that this comes through and COVID doesn’t ruin it for all of us,” said Councillor Tim Withey.

“I echo what councillor Withey just said. I think it’s awesome that you got the grant, Kelly. That’s pretty cool and I think this is a fantastic project,” said Deputy Mayor Nancy Alcock. She asked whether the event would be free or whether there’d be a charge and people would have to sign up for the event. The organizers said initially the idea will be to keep the even free but in the future there may be a small stipend required from participants. They also said preregistration would likely be available as an opportunity to cater to walk-ins, depending on the number of people already in attendance.

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Councillor Brian Thompson said he too loved the project and noted that the event is a shining example of how to use the proceeds from the Huntsville Municipal Accommodation Tax Association (HMATA). “I just wanted to congratulate you all on that. I think this is quite reassuring,” he said, referring to the HMATA’s $300,000 contribution to the project.

Councillor Dione Schumacher said she’s on board for “things that are going to bring people to Huntsville.” She did, however, caution about restrictions related to COVID-19, and noted that the lights could also be incorporated into other activities such as Canada Day celebrations. “We’re trying to balance the economy and keeping businesses viable and keeping people safe.”

Prompted by a question from Councillor Dan Armour, Haywood said staff would be hired for the event and the use of municipal staff would be minimal.

Council approved the entire request put forth. You can find staff’s report including the detailed budget proposed for the event here. You can also find the PowerPoint presentation submitted to council by the organizers of the event here.


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