Agritourism destination Niagara-on-the-Lake is branching out from its traditional charms as it seeks to attract new business.

Situated on the Canada-U.S. border, on the southwestern shore of Lake Ontario and at the mouth of the Niagara River, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a small 19th century town surrounded by agriculture, wineries and historic landmarks. While located near the famous Niagara Falls, it has abundant tourist draws of its own: historical architecture, the Shaw Festival, Fort George(a relic of the War of 1812), and activities such as bike, boat and horse-drawn carriage rides, from which visitors can take in the beautiful natural landscape.

Niagara-on-the-Lake has built a healthy tourism industry around its heritage and natural lustre but, as it reaches the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, it seeks to expand its horizons by attracting new business and modern attractions. Leading the town in this pursuit is Chief Administrative Officer Mike Galloway and Lord Mayor Dave Eke(the only traditional Lord Mayor in Canada.)

The Growth of Tourism

The town was established in 1792 as the first capital of Upper Canada (a political division in British Canada established in 1791). The town became a major port during the colonial period but lost that function with the construction of the Welland Canal, Lord Mayor Dave Eke reveals. As for its recent  history, he explains that the town began attracting tourists in 1962, with the introduction of the Shaw Festival Theatre: presenting plays by George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries from May to November every year.  Today, it is the second largest repertory theatre in North America.

“The founding of the Shaw Festival was, for me, a turn of the page from being a dusty, remote, barren town with many historical features but which was somewhat out of sight, out of mind,” says Eke. “The Shaw Festival began drawing people from the Greater Toronto Area and they noticed what a beautiful, quaint town Niagara-on-the-Lake is, where little had changed over time. All of a sudden, we started seeing the growth of new hotels and restaurants, and we found that people wanted to explore and enjoy the beauty of the old architecture. We took this and moved forward with it.”

Niagara-on-the-Lake has an ideal natural landscape and micro-climate for growing fruit such as peaches, pears, plums and cherries, meaning the area has a long history in agriculture. “Since the 1990s, much of our agricultural land has transitioned into a very lucrative grape-growing area and we now have some 29 wineries in the town,” Eke says.

“Agriculture, agritourism and the wineries have combined with the heritage of the area, including cultural events and the architecture of our period homes, to create a significant tourist draw. Niagara Falls receives more than 10 million tourists a year and I’d say we get around 3.5 million. We’re very pleased about the tourism outcomes we’ve achieved in recent years.”

A New Age of Industry

Tourism has always been a prominent industry in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But Galloway says the town now offers tourists far more than nature and history alone.

“We’re seeing the face of tourism change,” he begins. “Tourism initiatives are more diversified based on market demand. We’ve introduced jet boat tours that run out to Niagara Falls and we see a lot of bicycle tours, for which the land is well suited. Many of the wineries now offer culinary experiences to complement their tasting tours and we have two new micro-breweries opening soon.”

Eke believes the next big step in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s tourist industry will be the opening of a large shopping centre in 2014. This $170 million development, built by Montreal-based property developer Ivanhoe Cambridge, will be the largest outlet mall in Canada.

“This is quite a coup for us, it will be immediately south of the QEW [Queen Elizabeth Way]and, geographically, a large volume of tourists and residents pass by there, so we think it will be very good for the area. We’re hoping to have it up and running by May 2014.” Eke reveals the project will create 1,000 jobs during construction and 1500 for its operation once open, becoming a shopping destination for tourists and locals alike.

However, the town council has recognized that tourism alone is not enough to guarantee that Niagara-on-the-Lake’s economy remains healthy. “We want to continue focusing on tourism, because that is the main economic engine of the municipality, but also to look at diversification,” he explains. “That diversity will come from further commercial and industrial-type developments, which will ensure we still have a firm footing in the next 20, 30, 40 years looking out.”

Open for Business

The town council is doing all it can to encourage business leaders to move into town, in a bid to kick-start further commercial and industrial growth. “We want to see growth in the prestige industrial areas we’ve zoned up by the QEW, which offers easy access to the GTA, as well as the vast U.S. markets around the Great Lakes and throughout the East Coast,” says Eke.

In September 2011, Eke held the first Lord Mayor’s business luncheon with businesses that currently reside the town in order to seek endorsements. “I wanted to hear some positives and negatives, to learn what we could do better. We’ve opened up that dialogue and it seems to be paying off in the development we’re seeing here,” he says. “And who better to endorse doing business here than people doing it already?”

To ensure these businesses have places to reside, Niagara-on-the-Lake is also appealing to developers. “We’re trying to get the message out that we’re willing to work with you as a developer, to meet your needs and to lead you through the various zoning and bylaws that need to be put in place to get you up and running,” Eke says. This assistance should help developers save time and therefore money.

Looking Within

The Niagara-on-the-Lake Town Council is working to make itself the best it can be. Eke reveals the town’s administrative offices are undergoing their first reworking in almost 30 years, with an emphasis on providing easy public access to information and the best customer service possible.  A local advisory committee is also developing a new corporate branding strategy for the town.

When Eke was elected as Lord Mayor in 2010, he decided that certain things about the council needed changing – he wanted to simplify things, improve working relationships and ensuring the council was always open to residents.

“I’ve worked with Mike [Galloway] over the past two years to make some very major steps forward: in promoting the town, raising satisfaction within it, and getting out the notion that we’re open for business, to help buffer the costs of government and maintain our area,” he says. “There have certainly been positive changes.”

Galloway says the council has gone to great lengths to ensure the town’s residents are always in the loop. “We’re trying to build a strong working relationship in which residents can easily come into town hall and get the answers they require,” he explains. “For example, we’ve recently made a sincere effort to communicate with our residents on the web, where all our financial data are now available, including our first-ever annual report.  We are also one of only a handful of municipalities with a smartphone app for our new transit service.  It’s all very transparent.”

The Town’s efforts appear to be working. The most recent census indicated that Niagara-on-the-Lake was one of only two municipalities in the Niagara Region that saw a dramatic population increase in the last year. Its population rose by 5.6 per cent, which Galloway says shows that the town “is a desirable place for people to live and to do business.” With its thriving tourism industry, pipeline of developments and continual pursuit of improvement, Niagara-on-the-Lake looks like a town that is going places.

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