Innisfil – Toronto’s Forgotten Playground

On holiday weekends we’re used to seeing Highway 400 clogged with traffic heading to “cottage country”. And back again. Innisfil is more often part of the route, not the destination. But, not so long ago, Toronto area families had arrived at the cottage when they got to Innisfil. In the 50s, Innisfil Beach Park was a popular camping area and the town population swelled with seasonal residents who owned cottages at or near the shore of Lake Simcoe. Seasonal neighbours formed beach associations that sponsored family and sporting events during the summer.

At the time, Innisfil’s permanent population was about 3,500. Now, decades later, about 4,000 seasonal residents of Innisfil continue to enjoy their summers on Lake Simcoe while more than 30,000 people call it home.

Innisfil’s strategic plan, Inspiring Innisfil 2020, focuses on tourism as one component of a new economic strategy. Considering the times we live in, it may be a serendipitous move. People’s recreational choices are likely to be affected by several factors:

  • The cost of buying a seasonal home has been getting expensive. An article published in May, 2011 put prices at $150,000 to 350,000 for the Haliburton Highlands; Bruce Peninsula $250,000 to $450,000; Parry Sound waterfront $350,000; Sudbury waterfront $210,000.
  • The cost of reaching that seasonal residence by car is also getting pretty expensive at $1.20 or more per litre of gas when the destination is a two to four hour drive away.
  • With a great deal of economic uncertainty, families are choosing to travel more locally, or to take day trips.
  • As the Toronto region becomes more heavily populated, people are looking for convenient ways to enjoy nature and the outdoors. Travel statistics show “Any Outdoor/Sports Activity” is, by far, the most frequent ‘trip activity’.

Publicly available statistics (2009) from the Regional Tourism Organization (RTO7) show that 1,959,000 person-visits originated from Metro Toronto. More than 1,000,000 of those were overnight visits to the RTO7 region, which encompasses the Bruce Peninsula, Southern Georgian Bay and Lake Simcoe. I was surprised to learn that a million person-visits originated from within Simcoe County and a quarter of those (245,000) were overnight visits. Toronto area residents also made 900,000 same-day visits and Simcoe County residents made 755,000 same-day visits within RTO7 in 2009.

That’s a lot of traffic, so a book by Roger Brooks, who is advising Barrie on tourism strategy, also caught my attention. His book, Your Town – A Destination, includes 25 Rules for Tourism Success, and it offers a useful list of steps for planners and those in the hospitality industry. I’m not going to cover all of them, but here are some thought provokers:

Relationships require more than one person – One loud voice is more successful than a bunch of small voices.

Local tourism operators will find strength in numbers and should look for creative ways to work together. All the more important because our attractions are scattered – Georgian Downs, Tangers (Cookstown Mall), Innisfil Beach Park, farm-gate stores, campground, theatre and sports venues.

“Put your bait out on the highway”

There’s about a 4 second window to catch travellers’ attention at highway speeds. One local entrepreneur is promoting the idea of Tourism Radio. It’s a promotional concept that would enhance highway signage with a custom broadcast covering Innisfil from Cookstown to South Barrie. But it will require the cooperation of highway sign owners and tourism operators to make travellers aware of the radio signal.

“First Impressions are really lasting impressions… Take a look at your gateway signage …”

This is where we have room for improvement. Have you noticed the Alcona gateway sign lately? The Town should revise the current sign bylaw to further restrict or ban the ugly, mobile magnetic billboard clutter. Local businesses could start now by voluntarily removing them. They make Innisfil look like the urban equivalent of a second hand store. Inspiring Innisfil calls for distinctive neighbourhoods and identities. Can we get consensus on that?

Critical Mass – A destination downtown needs a critical mass of 10 destination retail shops, 10 dining venues and 10 places open after 6 p.m.”

Innisfil really needs to develop its urban commercial core, and I don’t mean cloning the usual tired collection of chain stores found everywhere. Cookstown has an opportunity to build on its historic roots but will need an infusion of cash and a good dose of positive energy. Reconstruction of Innisfil Beach Road continues this year to set the stage for commercial development in Alcona.

“Parking is not just for lovers”

Visitors typically spend four hours for dining and shopping. Long-term parking is important as well for RVs and trucks. But are there enough places in Innisfil where you would want to spend a couple of hours dining? There’s lots of fast food and RTE for our commuters but what about something more?

“Photos are worth a thousand nights”

I think Innisfil has a good start on that. I’ve seen so many fantastic photos that show off Lake Simcoe at its best

“Great stories make the campfire memorable”

Innisfil has a great story to tell. Let’s get started.

This is just an abbreviated sampling of Roger Brooks 25 Rules. You can view all 25 Rules at http://1800fm.com/newsletter_71.html.

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One thought on “Innisfil – Toronto’s Forgotten Playground

  1. Regarding the problem you mention about the ugly magnetic mobile trailer billboards in downtown Alcona…here’s a novel idea…why not have one municipal gateway sign to downtown Alcona with a FM radio message frequency for broadcasting advertising for local merchants and a percentage of the ad revenue can help lower our sky high property taxes!

    Plus what is the deal with all those empty truck trailers with signs on them in corn fields along the 400 highway in Innisfil? Why are town officials letting these out of town builders and a few local developers violate bylaws and MTO restrictions?

    Tourism Radio 1800FM.com

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