Gananoque and the Thousand Islands
Just a short drive along Highway 401 east of Toronto you’ll come across one of Ontario’s most beautiful portions of nature in Gananoque and the Thousand Islands. Situated 30km east of Kingston, about 300,000 visitors converge annually on the small town from around the world.
Supported by 756 hotel rooms plus a number of bed & breakfasts and campgrounds along with about 20 restaurants and pubs, the region is more than suitably equipped to host those many hundreds of thousands of tourists who converge on the town each year. According to data from 2012 about 25% of all tourists come to the region from international destinations. To that end there is the international Thousand Islands Bridge that leads into the U.S., with the border about 15km from Gananoque.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Shelley Hirstwood, Economic Development Manager with the Town of Gananoque about the region’s incredible offerings. She has been in the role for the past five years.
“It’s a great community to live in because you have everything you need. We have amazing cafes and our own local brewery. We have all these things that the tourists love to come and see,” she begins.
Gananoque and Thousand Islands has been a known popular tourist destination for well over a century. It has a long-standing history of people who have lived on the Islands and has attracted the rich and famous for decades.
“You have these cottages on Islands that have been passed down from generation to generation and each island and each cottage has its own unique story,” Hirstwood says. “I think the cottage life and the island life is something so unique to our region. When people come here there’s always a unique story and for each person it’s very different.”
Some of the wonderful structures are much more than just your modest little cabin. There are a number of mansions and two castles – Boldt Castle and Singer Castle. Boldt Castle, located on Heart Island in the Thousand Islands of the Saint Lawrence River, along the northern border of the U.S. state of New York, is a major landmark and tourist attraction. Heart Island is part of the Town of Alexandria, in Jefferson County. Boldt Castle is accessible by ferry, private boat or by tour boat from Alexandria Bay; Gananoque; Rockport, Ontario; and Ivy Lea, Ontario. Singer Castle is prominently featured on Dark Island in the lower Thousand Islands region.
Gananoque also serves the surrounding Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands making for a total local trade area of about 15,000 people. The Town and the Township work hand in hand cooperatively as a region. The Township has the land, Gananoque has the resources.
“Our key priorities, as per our strategic plan, are investment attraction, business retention and expansion, along with tourism development. And, we always have a placeholder for that community development piece and lifestyle piece that is important to build the community as much as the business because it all goes hand in hand,” Hirstwood says.
A program known as Invest in Gananoque is designed to assist those who have an entrepreneurial spirit and propel their ideas and initiatives into tangible business prospects. There are a number of services and support mechanisms put in place to help in that regard.
Gananoque and the Thousand Islands have always cultivated and nurtured a rich entrepreneurial spirit. The municipal services provided for anyone looking to start a business includes a number of funding resources including programs for the downtown area. Hirstwood says one key factor is the ability to bring the community and the service providers together. If someone is looking to start a business, Hirstwood will initiate the process of bringing the necessary people to the negotiating table, whether it’s the planners, the Chamber of Commerce or the employment development workforce.
“We can bring whoever they need very readily,” Hirstwood confirms. “Having those resources and ease of doing business is really attractive.”
The Chamber covers Gananoque and the Township of Leeds and the Thousand Islands, including the villages of Seeleys Bay, Lyndhurst, Lansdowne, Rockport and Ivy Lea and all points in between. The formal object of the Thousand Islands Gananoque Chamber of Commerce is to promote and improve trade and commerce and the cultural, civic and social well-being of the district.
For many years Gananoque and the Thousand Islands have seen economic growth while a number of existing businesses expand and make updated improvements to further enhance the experience for tourists.
In addition to tourism, Gananoque also boasts an impressive manufacturing sector and is most notably home to Medtronic, an internationally recognized medical manufacturing facility. There are also smaller, niche manufacturing facilities that greatly benefit the local economy.
“One of our biggest assets is the creative economy, especially with the innovative technology that we have available. You can now live anywhere and have the quality of life of living on an Island in a piece of paradise. If you do need to get to Toronto, Montreal or Ottawa you can hop on the train and you’re there,” Hirstwood says.
Looking across the entire region agriculture and agri-businesses also play a significant role in the local economy.
Gananoque is equipped with two community improvement plans (CIP). One is for the downtown, where the Town provides matching dollars for beautification projects including facades, interior and residential interior as well as accessibility.
“We also provide a 0% interest loan as well,” Hirstwood confirms.
The other CIP is a brownfield program, which includes funding support for studies as well as an incremental tax cancellation program that goes to the building process. For Hirstwood and Gananoque it’s always imperative to keep a targeted focus on a diversified economy. To accomplish that goal means collaboration within the entire region and with all business partners in an effort to maximize potential for leveraging each and every asset.
“We’re constantly growing and is seeing lots of investments. There are three condo developments currently under way, with each one retrofitted on former brownfield sites. We’re thrilled to see the sites being redeveloped and repurposed into great drivers for the economy,” Hirstwood adds.
Something for Everyone
Coming into the Thousand Islands is the Rideau Canal is the UNESCO World Heritage Site connection for the Frontenac Arch Biosphere. There are numerous anchor businesses to build on whether it’s the Boat Line Helicopter Tours or kayaking, Gananoque and the Thousand Islands is the place to be for great family fun. Cycling along the many beautiful, scenic trails is another very popular summer event.
Numerous festivals held throughout the summer months bring in thousands of revellers, with each providing its own unique set of diversified interests. There is always something happening, whether it’s music in the park or Pirate Days or Ribfest, which is held every Canada Day long weekend in association with the Rotary Club. New this year is the revival of an old event known as the Nickel Cup Hydroplane Regatta, which is sure to be an instant hit with those in attendance. Additionally, there is the Shorelines Casino in the Township of Leeds on The Thousand Islands – which, by itself, attracts about 850,000 people a year. The region is also a fantastic getaway for business professionals as well.
“Because of our proximity to Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto it’s easy if a company wants to bring out their employees for a retreat,” Hirstwood notes.
Within the next few years Hirstwood expects there will be both an increase in the number of businesses and an increase in the diversity of those businesses.
“One of our great opportunities is software technology based. Not only do you have this great lifestyle option we have the fibre infrastructure and the services. Our proximity to several colleges and universities is a tremendous asset and we have the workforce from those regions,” she says.
Twenty years ago you couldn’t have run a technology-based company in Gananoque – you had to be in a major centre like Toronto, Montreal or Ottawa, but advancements in Internet technology has made the world much more accessible for those in more remote, rural areas.
Meanwhile, the Thousand Island Parks Commission is launching a Skywalk this summer complete with zip lines and a canopy walk. It’s the same organization that has a dedicated cycling pathway along the St. Lawrence River.
“The Thousand Islands is certainly a key component for our tourism and the starting point for any adventure,” Hirstwood concludes.