The historic and marvellously picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario is a town sustained by a character and spirit that is truly like no other. Bounded at the north end by the south shores of Lake Ontario and the mighty Niagara River to the east this quaint community dates back more than 200 years, boasting one of the most sizable and diversified tourism industries anywhere in Canada.
Thousands of visitors travel to Niagara-on-the-Lake every year for its world-class live theatre productions at the Shaw Festival, fine dining, shopping, winery tours, farm markets and its numerous historical sites, including Fort George.
Within the town, the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce is tasked with promoting the social, civic and economic well-being of the town and in turn provides information to consumers, businesses and visitors while enhancing economic development. The Chamber also offers tourism services such as information centres and accommodation reservation service and a complete listing of upcoming events.
The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Janice Thomson whose fundamental responsibility is to advance the interests of all business sectors within the community while maintaining a balance that respects the residents and their high-quality of life.
“We operate seven days a week, so in that sense it’s not a traditional weekday Chamber of Commerce,” says Thomson.
Invariably, one of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about Niagara-on-the-Lake is the world famous Shaw Festival, which represents the very best in live theatre production. Founded in 1962, it is the second-largest repertory theatre company in North America.
“I would say the Shaw Festival changed the face of the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake,” emphasizes Thomson. “Bringing the theatre here and focusing on culture and something that sparked people’s interests to come and enjoy the plays as it grew – the musicals, mysteries and other genres. As that grew, it created a demand for accommodations as well as restaurants and food services. It was necessary to build an infrastructure around the Shaw Festival, which was definitely a turning point for this town.”
In the intervening decades the winery tourism sector has also blossomed and is widely regarded as the preeminent region in the country. While some visitors have a primary desire to see live theatre and wineries on a day-trip, others prefer to stay longer, and that in turn has created a market for such companies as Niagara-on-the-Lake Realty to set up visitors in a wide variety of vacation rental homes.
The Niagara Parkway is an excellent way to see much of Niagara’s beauty. Stretching 55km from one end to another the roadway starts in Fort George and meanders in parallel with the Niagara River to Old Fort Erie to the south. During the trip tourists are treated to such well-known attractions as Queenston Heights, Brock Monument, the Floral Clock, the Butterfly Conservatory and of course the Horseshoe Falls and the American Falls.
With a wide variety of indoor and outdoor attractions, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a viable tourist destination all year round, with the winter months offering a number of exciting events and attractions.
“The Icewine Festival actually started here in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This year was our 22nd festival. The wineries are very proud of the fact they took that bold step in doing it outdoors in the winter. It’s a spectacularly successful initiative,” Thomson proudly says.
In fact, all of January is considered to be the time of the Icewine Festival as people are able to go on tours of the wineries on any day of the month. The specialty weekends are made up of a series of entertaining events, sponsored by some of the larger wineries. This past January there were 19 wineries and 10 restaurants that participated in the downtown festivities on Queen St. in the heart of the Heritage District.
“We had ice sculptures, live music and little bonfires,” remarks Thomson. “There were also beautiful chairs that we had built. They look like Muskoka chairs but we call them Niagara Barrel chairs because they are made from wine barrels. Those are the unique touches that when people come here they recognize that they are somewhere different.”
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a fantastic destination for people of all ages. Couples with young families can take their children on such fun excursions such as the jet boats and Ghost Walks. There is also stand-up paddle-boarding, kayaking and cycling to provide great fitness and fun. And it’s not just for tourists. Local residents can, and often do, partake in many of the activities. Historic Fort George (Parks Canada) has a new partnership with Vintage Hotels where they’ve built an outdoor skating rink. It has been hugely successful since the moment it opened for the local residents and tourists alike.
For historical buffs, in addition to Fort George there is also the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum and the Niagara Apothecary Museum.
Music Niagara is a three-week festival in August and Bravo Niagara is renowned for bringing in major acts including the likes of Molly Johnson.
“It’s a very fertile ground here for new initiatives that feed the demand for culture, the arts and entertainment,” adds Thomson.
The town also has a wide variety of sports and recreational facilities including the resplendent nine-hole Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club, which is the oldest course in North America with breathtaking views across the lake, with Toronto being easily visible on sunny, clear days. There are also beautiful tree-lined courses in St. David’s and Queenston. Both the Centennial Arena and the Meridian Credit Union Arena are used by residents of the town with the ice being available from early September to the end of March. Arena floors are available for rent during the summer months for such activities as shows, dances, and ball hockey. Additionally there are a number of soccer fields, ball diamonds and tennis courts for those looking to keep their fitness at peak levels.
“We have a wonderful community centre where there are activities and courses for people of all ages. A lot of the funds have been raised locally to make sure that these facilities can properly serve the needs of our children,” says Thomson.
Tourism and agriculture have traditionally assumed monumental roles in the economics and the stability of Niagara-on-the-Lake, but Thomson recognizes that enterprise diversification is essential for future growth and prosperity. Laying the groundwork for pursuing avenues of advancing other business sectors is constantly being reviewed and implemented whenever and wherever feasible. One such sector that has already firmly established itself as a growing entity is higher education, with Niagara College’s Glendale campus located at the south end of town, just off the Queen Elizabeth Highway.
“Niagara College is a huge contributor to the economy. It’s a town of only 15,500 people but the scope of what we have to deliver to more than 3 million visitors each year means we need trained staff and specialists in various areas,” explains Thomson.
Education is able to work hand in hand with the established agricultural community, which is highly advanced from a technical point of view. The use of first-class machinery and techniques means there is a demand for skilled workers, who are able to obtain those necessary skills through the college’s training programs.
As part of the Niagara College Glendale Campus is the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre, which has drawn attention and rave reviews as one of the best of its kind anywhere in Canada.
Meanwhile, just across the street from Niagara College is the Outlet Collection at Niagara, a massive, sprawling retail structure with more than 100 tenants that make up the largest open-air outlet shopping centre in the country. When the expansive mall was opened in May, 2014 it immediately provided about 1,500 jobs.
“It’s a central location that some of the other municipalities and the Niagara Region have recognized and so they are providing public transportation from Niagara Falls, Welland and St. Catharines,” notes Thomson.
Another staple within the municipality that has been an integral economic driver is the Niagara District Airport. The facility provides an efficient transportation gateway to the Region and is ideally set up for both business and tourism purposes. Equipped with a 5,000-foot runway and 24-hour Customs’ clearance, the airport’s services include executive and personal charters, helicopter and fixed-wing sightseeing and an active flight-training school. Thomson is certain that the venue will play an even larger economic role for the town and the Region in the future.
“We met recently with the Region to look at the options. As Pearson Airport, for example, gets up to full capacity they’re going to be looking for feeder airports – not to handle passenger traffic but rather some of the other services, such as air ambulances and small executive aircraft transportation,” says Thomson.
A new service at the airport is held in conjunction with the Greater Toronto Airways, which provides 12-minute flights from Toronto across the lake to Niagara at a cost of $89. The Chamber and the town used the service recently to bring in a group of 15 meeting planners rather than taking the usual method of picking them up and driving them down the highway.
Thomson and her staff want to see more business opportunities realized, and with unlimited potential for growth there is a great deal of optimism that it can be accomplished. “We’re a premier tourism and agricultural centre but there are also some prime employment lands that are not yet being utilized in the community up around the QEW at Glendale,” she says. “The Outlet Collection at Niagara was a huge development for the area. We’ve also seen the federal government build a marine security operation centre as well.”
Transportation in the community is another key focal point that the Chamber has designs on enhancing. Such plans don’t necessarily concentrate on expansion as much as ensuring the initial intentions of the town’s heritage services and historical aspects are properly preserved and remain intact.
“Currently our motor coaches are parked out at Fort George and people are shuttled into the Heritage Area. We believe it’s important to maintain that because it keeps it as an authentic heritage destination. The motor coaches themselves are the wrong scale for the size of the Heritage District. It’s a small area and the buildings themselves are not large. It’s about maintaining the quality of life that exists here now,” says Thomson.
The Chamber recognizes the efforts of the people who have built the community and the people who sustain it. Appreciation for those people is shown at the annual Spirit of Niagara awards. “We never run out of qualified candidates for the awards,” Thomson proudly says. “So many people and companies are doing diverse, positive things for the community and you realize we’re very fortunate to be here in Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a wonderful destination that encapsulates the vibrant history of days gone by, combined with the luxuries of today’s amenities. It is journey back in time to a more leisurely era that leaves all who experience it with fond memories that last forever.