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Tourism issues start at home

This week's Market Squared looks at how issues around arts, culture and sports tourism are a microcosm for the big issues
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Downtown Guelph.

It was probably a better idea back before the provincial government threw all of Ontario’s planning legislation into the woodchipper, but the City of Guelph is reviewing the ways we can become a better tourist destination, and last week they invited the community to take part in two different engagement sessions.

I took part in one of those, and by “took part” I mean I listened to what everybody said and then tweeted about it. The point, which I’m coming to, is that the exercise was not just empty calories. The condition of our arts, culture and sports scenes should be very much top of mind, and they’re very much of a piece with some of the other concerns we have everyday.

For instance, unless you reach a certain rarified one-percenter plateau, you’re unlikely to find a wealthy artist and it’s almost as rare to find one who’s upper middle class or just regular middle class. So can you’re average emerging artist afford the $2,100 per month for your average one-bedroom apartment in Guelph?

But this is just the beginning of the space issues because artists need somewhere to work too, and I happen to know from my own flirtation with the arts that affordable studio space was at a premium long before the current cost crunch, especially downtown which is supposed to be our cultural epicentre.

If you think that this is a phenomenon of privately-owned space downtown, you would be wrong. If you’re an emerging musician or theatrical group, ask about the rates to rent even the smallest stage of the River Run Centre. Or the Guelph Youth Music Centre. Despite the fact that these spaces are underutilized, accessing them is still a matter of writing a big cheque.

The Sleeman Centre is also underutilized, and while I’m not sure what an emerging artist would do with 5,100 seats, this is an awful big empty to be sitting in the middle of the core for half the year when the Storm are not in season.

Having said that though, Guelph is a tournament town. Many weekends during the year, Guelph is a draw for swimming, hockey, ringette, baseball, competitive dancing and other sporty activities, but can our facilities keep up? Do we have the right combination of facilities to continue to be a draw for all of these tournaments?

Guelph is also a festival town. Hillside not only survived the pandemic, it survived the onslaught of competition in summer festivals that preceded the pandemic. The Guelph Jazz Festival continues to lead in the extremely rarified area of improvised music both in public performance and academic research. The Guelph Film Festival also persists as the longest running documentary film festival in Canada.

Here again though we run up to a matter of access. The cool new band playing house shows is not going to get called up to one of the Hillside stages. A locally-made documentary is probably not likely to get a screening at the Guelph Film Festival, and what about other kinds of movies?

How easy are we making it to help groups establish new kinds of events, or festivals? Con-G made a comeback during the pandemic as an online fan festival, but is there any place in Guelph right now where one could hold a Comic Con or Anime North style event?

That leads us to an uncomfortable conversation about the state of our local hotel and hospitality business because we’ve already lost two hotels and we’re probably going to lose another. That leaves a lot of room for short-term rentals, but that’s probably not something we want to chase in a housing crisis.

And if you’re thinking about hotels, then you’re also thinking about travel, and that makes me think about the rancid state of regional transportation.

If you want to go to Kitchener, Hamilton or London for a show or festival (or have people come to Guelph for the same) just about the only option you have is to drive yourself or carpool with friends, which means that at least one of you can’t imbibe and also has to stay lucid enough to drive several kilometres home.

Also, if you’re only going as far as a half-hour to an hour’s drive away, do you really want to spend the night in a hotel?

The other thing that occurs to me is when you’re relatively sheltered kid from somewhere like Georgetown (like I used to be), the old Greyhound bus station was a gateway drug to the culture of “big city” Guelph. You always saw somebody with a guitar case there, the racks were filled with alt-weeklies, and there were a couple video games and vending machines there that encouraged you to hang around.

In a way, Guelph culture took a fatal hit when that stupid concrete cube was knocked down. The old graffiti tunnel under the railroad tracks behind the station was walled off and filled in too, and then the whole thing was replaced with an exemplar of classical corporate design of metal and glass that synergizes all the local transit services, which is something that only works in theory, not practice.

Culture only emerges from the messy, so the question for Guelph is are we prepared to be a little messy if it means we start turning Guelph into a cultural Mecca again?

I remember about 10 years ago when the biggest issue downtown was bands and groups putting up posters outside the three approved areas. Oh, for the days when the height of offense in the core was some high school punk bank putting up their rock show posters on the wrong damn light pole…


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Adam A. Donaldson

About the Author: Adam A. Donaldson

In addition to writing his weekly political column for GuelphToday, Adam A. Donaldson writes and manages Guelph Politico, frequently writes for Nerd Bastards and sometimes has to do less cool things for a paycheque.
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