Envisioning French River: Strategic Plan — An Opinion

A while ago, I ran into someone who urged me to read and comment on the Municipality’s draft strategic plan. Then, not long afterwards, I read someone else’s thoughts on the subject in the paper, and needed no more prompting — though perhaps a bit more procrastination — to download the plan from the Municipality’s website.

It’s a long document, mostly more in-depth than the 15-page introduction, so those who are short on time really shouldn’t feel guilty if they don’t get to the 95-pager. But it’s definitely worth taking the time to read the introductory draft Vision, Mission, and Goals (it’s also worth scrutinising the proposed strategic plan in more detail by reading the Community Assessment Report for Strategic Planning if you have the time and desire). The Municipality surveyed the business community for its ideas — residents need to express theirs.

There are some great ideas put forward in the strategic plan, and also a few questionable ones. While striving for balance, the Municipality should wholly commit to the vision of sustainability put forward in the plan. Biofuels or a waterpark, for example, have been proposed for the industrial park or as a tourist attraction. But a waterpark is hardly sustainable, given the exceptionally high levels of water consumption. In the case of biofuels — aside from often diverting the world’s food sources away from hungry tables — crops are produced from monocultures, which weakens output, requiring toxic pesticides, herbicides, and/or insecticides to maintain production levels. Surrounding ecosystems and communities suffer. Do we want to import and refine a product that’s having that kind of a negative impact in the name of development, economy, or even sustainability? Greenwash.

And is the process of converting biomaterials to fuel itself sustainable? What type of fuel powers the operation? How much water is consumed in the process? Where is waste disposed? We must ask these tough questions to protect the lakes and rivers and surrounding natural beauty that attracts people to live or visit here in the first place.

It’s the same with other target industries like mining and manufacturing, which were frequently praised in the plan, just like the irony that the draft strategic plan presents in one breath a vision of sustainability for the area’s strongest asset, its natural beauty, and attracting well-known polluters in the next. A vision of sustainability is nice to have, but it can’t just be “words to live by” which are never used.

And as unused as the industrial park currently remains, selling it isn’t an option, either. There’s no public oversight in the private sector. An accountable review process should be put in place to ensure manufacturers and other types of industries that contemplate settling in the area really are sustainable (what is their source of raw materials, what type of energy do they use and how much, do new construction plans use green materials and design, how much water is consumed, what impact does transportation of raw and refined products have, etc).

Much lauded in the plan is the multi-use trail system. For my part, I remain unsure. It seems the association has shied away from hiring eco-trailbuilders due to lack of funding, despite the large investment made by the Municipality. As a hiker, the natural trails deep within Mashkinonje and Killarney Provincial Parks appeal to me because they are not intrusive on the landscape — they are a part of it. In comparison, wide quad trails tamper with ecosystems, fragment wildlife habitat, and are dangerous to people and their pets. On the other hand, I think it could be a great idea if the Municipality’s vision of sustainability guided the construction of the trails. As part of the Trans-Canada Trail system, the multi-use trails allow motorised vehicles. Although I’m opposed to this, the project may draw some tourism to the area, but again, I agree with the concern that these tourism dollars will only benefit convenience stores, gas stations, and restaurants (possibly lodgings, though trail users are often also campers). The Multi-Use Trail Association does propose to build side trails to existing and future cultural and tourism attractions, which would certainly entice trail users, so long as they didn’t leave their wallets in the car…

I’m also wary of proposals to attract more high-end accommodations. Resorts rarely encourage their guests to leave their property and don’t stimulate the local economy. What’s more, French River is right along the backpacker trail. Backpackers are notorious for wanting to do the most for the least; they spend a lot of money, but they spread it around more and tend to be more aware of buying local.

That’s why we need infrastructure, services, and attractions like a youth hostel, a pub or similar licensed establishment, a mini-putt, a pizza joint, a local outfitter (in town and easily accessible to anyone without a vehicle), a car rental service, a taxi service, and a bus system. Many of these would also be used by residents, making them viable year-round businesses. Coordinating with local fishing/hunting/hiking/canoeing guides and listing them on the municipal website and in the brochure would make it easier for potential visitors to plan ahead. Guides who might be unavailable at the last minute but might otherwise have been free will also be grateful. Likewise, cooperation between the municipality and local organisations to advertise, as far in advance as possible, events related to arts, culture, locally-significant industries, local environment, etc., would help visitors determine when to plan their trip and may even entice them to come back.

Thinking outside the box is key when determining which types of businesses to attract/develop. The suggestion to build a Land of the Voyageurs Pioneer Village is a worthy one which must be considered in context. How far is it to other similar attractions? How would ours be different? How can it be developed with added value to the community in mind? It’s not enough to believe attractions will stimulate economic development. They will only do that if developed with marketing tactics in mind. For instance, a Pioneer Village along Highway 69 would not entice people to actually enter the Land of the Voyageurs and spend tourist dollars at its businesses. It would only be a stop on the way to somewhere else, just like the Trading Post and the Visitors Centre often are.

The problem as I see it, though, and the reason we see few backpackers here, is that transportation is impossible without a car. Nearby municipalities should work together to organise a system of transportation connecting St. Charles and Hagar, Monetville, Lavigne and Verner, and Alban and Rutter — points where people either want to go or can connect to another destination via alternate transportation. Even return trips once a day would help out commuters, shoppers, and day-trippers. A separate shuttle system could serve lodgings and tourist attractions (to help take advantage of the existing nearby bowling alley, beaches, golf courses, driving range, trails, provincial parks, farms, tourist attractions, Visitors Centre, etc.). Many seniors don’t drive, but neither do many teenagers, people with disabilities, people without licenses, or people without the money or desire to own a car. An effective transportation system makes it easier to travel the area and take advantage of all it has to offer, increasing the quality of life of local residents as well as the labour pool and flow of commodities and services within the area. It truly makes an attractive place to live in, work in, and visit.

The plan highlights division within the community. Some want to keep things the way they are, others want to improve the area’s economic and labour situations. There are ways to preserve what we have here without changing too much. Why build entirely new sites and ignore our existing gems? For instance, so many people think we should have an outdoor theatre. Isn’t Joe Chartrand Park already the perfect location to build a permanent outdoor stage? No need for seating — audiences bring blankets and camp chairs. The space is not being used to its full potential. An outdoor theatre could be designed to maintain and better equip the park’s other uses. It might even attract more private park rentals.

Perceived weaknesses in the area should be transformed into opportunities. Instead of trying to attract qualified workers from Sudbury, we should focus on offering education and training opportunities within the community, to retain youths and create good jobs for the local population. People leave because there are no jobs here, yet we have to “import” labour to fill the jobs we do have? Let’s fix that! Similarly, the Municipality could work with provincial parks staff to educate the public as to why fishing and camping regulations exist. Foster understanding instead of resentment. If our former reputation as a fishing destination no longer fits the shoe, let’s get a new shoe! Visitors believe the fish are gone from the French? Get them on the water some other way — with knee boards, tubes, kayaks, paddle boats… Make sure outfitters provide something to do for everyone, even if they do end up fishing, too. Variety is necessary. Only Dad wants to spend all week fishing; the rest of the family wants to enjoy what the area’s got to offer! Likewise, outfitters should provide skateboards for use at the local skate parks, bicycles, and snowshoes and skis for the winter season.

The strategic plan proposes the slogan “Voyageur Country,” which would really have to be “Voyageurs Country.” Either way, “Land of the Voyageurs” is more enticing to me. Likewise, the plan suggests marketing “the French” rather than “French River.” Locals use it, but that doesn’t make it recognisable to visitors (at least not until they get here and begin to feel more like a part of the place). I find it confusing. Imagine an American couple watching TV and seeing an ad for “the French.” Inspired, they zip off to Europe. (It’s also not a good web keyword.)

The Land of the Voyageurs is already being used by at least one other organisation in the area as well as by the farmers’ market — the Land of the Voyageurs Market. This initiative benefits the entire community. One way to improve it is through the strategic plan’s commitment to promote “buy local” policies to area businesses, restaurants, and residents. This is very important, as buying local means more than just buying at Foodland, for example — it means that Foodland needs to buy local, too. This is true of all area businesses, including the Municipality itself. If it has needs that can’t be filled locally, that might be insight into what types of businesses to attract to the area.

The market would also benefit from being held over two afternoons, say from two to six p.m., Thursdays and Fridays. This is when residents and visitors purchase their groceries for the weekend — by the time Saturday morning arrives, people are already at camp or away for the weekend, or just want to stay home to unwind after a long week. From general observation, all the businesses are busier on these days — let’s give local farmers, artisans, and entrepreneurs the same chance.

Another idea would be to add a fun factor to the market: bake-offs, canning contests, etc. The last Soups-On event with the Regroupement communautaire was a good idea that could be repeated. I’ve heard there used to be a fall fair in Noëlville. Let’s get something like that going again! They’re hugely popular! And, when promoting the market, advertising individual vendors lets people know why they need to go.

Adding a fisherman’s market component is one of the best ideas I read in the plan because it provides the opportunity for cooperation with our neighbouring First Nations communities while adding value to the market and to French River as a shopping destination in the immediate area. Those who have other ideas recently had the opportunity to fill out a Land of the Voyageurs Market survey and I’m looking forward to see how the Economic Development Committee (EDC) implements the community’s suggestions.

Sadly, reviving the farmers’ market won’t really do much to stimulate agriculture. It’s simply not economically viable to farm in the North due to quotas set by marketing boards promoting Southern interests. This year, I raised my own laying hens. The high costs, high risks, and low profits mean that I worked for free all summer. If I take in-kind income into consideration (“free” eggs), I broke even cash-wise, but never got paid for my actual time or labour. That’s kind of okay for someone like me doing it on a small scale, but the situation doesn’t change with farm size, just the numbers. I think it’s vital for the Municipality to support area agriculture somehow.

The strategic plan focuses too much on the summer season to really improve the employment situation in the area. People need to earn a living in the winter, too, and self-employment (the most common employment in French River, according to the Municipality’s research) doesn’t allow the luxury of employment insurance. What can the Municipality do to support seasonal workers during the off-season? Seasonal winter jobs should be incorporated into its scope of types of businesses to attract to the area.

Overall, I think the Municipality of French River’s draft strategic plan is on the right track. By committing to increase tourism opportunities and better our marketing of them, to attract select businesses and services to the area and create new jobs to retain youth, to implement buy-local policies to ensure area businesses succeed, and to do it all sustainably, we can envision tomorrow’s French River today. But everyone has a role to play in building community, and what I think is only part of the equation. Who’s onstage next?

A condensed version of this article appeared in the French River Today Bulletin.


3 Thoughts on “Envisioning French River: Strategic Plan

  1. Gislaine Gervais Roy:

    Très bien pensé, Julie. Tu poses des questions d’envergure. Dans un autre ordre d’idée, il faudrait aussi considérer la création de sentiers de vélo. Biking in this area is dangerous as I have discovered this past summer. It would be ideal to combine a trail system that would benefit cyclists.

    1. Merci beaucoup! The Multi Use Trail Association is developing multi-use trails which are *technically* open to everyone (but which cyclist, hiker, or horseback rider wants to share a trail with a speeding quad?). Moreover, it plans to develop specific-use side trails branching off the main multi-use trail. It could be very interesting if done well…

      1. Gislaine Gervais Roy:

        Although, I agree that a multi-use trail is a great idea, not all cyclists are into cross-country trails. I would like to see the shoulder on our local highways paved. I would also encourage an awareness campaign for motorists to “Share the Road” / “Partageons la route“. As I have stated before, biking is dangerous on our local highways — motorists tend not to slow down or give up a bit of space. I imagine that they have never felt the air movement on a 20 pound bike created by a quarter-ton car… This awareness campaign I mention can also include the health benefits of biking and the zero impact on our environment.