By John Swartz
As the dignitaries and press gathered for the ceremonial raising of flags to mark the opening of the Port of Orillia for another boating season, Allan Lafontaine, executive director of the Orillia District Chamber of Commerce and harbour master of the port, said he was going to petition the mayor to get some more swans.
Recently a couple swans moved into the port with the effect of giving the many geese a good reason to go elsewhere.
“Look at that, the sun just came out,” said Lafontaine. It was a good day to raise the flags, a month late, but a slight breeze caused the flags to flutter enough to make good pictures, and to take the edge off the heat. It was a perfect day.
Most of the people gathered for the event, Simcoe North MP Bruce Stanton and MPP Jill Dunlop, Mayor Steve Clarke, chamber president Bill Ecklund and Lafontaine were just happy to be able to be at an event.
“I’m just glad to be here to participate in the flag raising,” said Stanton during his remarks. “Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hopefully we’re going to have an amazing summer ahead.”
Clarke made note of how the chamber is able to stay relevant to the community when so many business were hobbled and the rules of engagement kept changing.
“I want to say think you to the chamber for being able to pivot and evolve as you have over the last year,” said Mayor Steve Clarke. “I know you have been looking for new and novel ways to engage the community and to engage the business community.”
It’s About The Economy
Getting the port open isn’t just about recreation. Visitors using the port spend a lot of money in Orillia.
“The port fits into the economy of Orillia significantly. If you’re a visitor to Orillia you either come in by car, or you come in by boat. This is one of our main entrances into the city,” said Clarke. There are few boats docked now, but everyone involved expects this will soon change.
“What this summer brings, definitively, I don’t know. My suspicion is with each step that opens, if the numbers continue to go in the direction they are going in right now and the vaccination numbers continue to go up, the port, if it’s safe to do so, will get busier and busier,” Clarke said.
Lafontaine said he expects to be very busy all summer.
“The indicators are that we are getting a lot of interest. We’re booking fast for Canada Day, record sales of the Trent Waterway system, seasonal passes,” said Allan Lafontaine. Phone inquires indicate people can’t wait to visit.
“They’re calling, they miss us, they miss Orillia. A lot of them don’t know how great Orillia is now since they’ve been gone because Orillia has dynamically changed through the pandemic.”
Lafontaine listed a number of new restaurants and shops which opened since last year which will attract boaters go see what’s up the hill in downtown.
“It just looks great. The whole landscape of downtown has changed.”
He thinks the amount of traffic and business may return to levels from two years ago.
“2019 was our best year. September’s long weekend was always about a third full; through the Pirate Party we were sold out. Last year we were way down.”
Ecklund’s Orillia Home Hardware may not be the first thing to come to mind as an important place for boaters to shop, but when something is broken on a weekend a hardware shop nearby is handy.
“It’s very important, and at our store we get a lot of people who come and they’re used to coming to the smaller mom & pop stores and they see our store and they are very impressed with our size and the selection we offer. It’s great to see our out-of-town visitors,” said Ecklund. Boating supplies, repair items and even deck chairs are already moving, even with only curbside pickup available for the moment. He’s looking forward to being able to open the store mid-month.
Dunlop agrees the port is important to the local economy.
“If you can get people off the Trent and come into Orillia and check out the amazing restaurants and shops we have here and stay at the port overnight that’s good for the economic opportunities in our community,” Dunlop said.
Stanton thinks more people are turning to recreation expenditures as a result of the pandemic, something about cabin fever may be prompting it.
“This is the kind of activity that in COVID and post-COVD times is attracting a lot of interest because people can stay closer to home, but they want to be outside and outdoors, so interest in boating is up.”
The poor cousin of the day because the focus was on the port, but still a cause for celebration by chamber executives and event coordinator/Orillia Perch Festival chair Doug Bunker, is the annual fishing derby starting tomorrow, Saturday – finally. It had a couple false starts which would cause most people to tear their hair out.
“Yup. See how shiny it is?” said Bunker, lifting his hat. “Technically just seven weeks late. That’s so much better than what other people had to put with. We got off easy.”
Two things are different from the previous 39 festivals. Registration and recording daily catches are going to be online using phones, and instead of being limited to just our two lakes, perch caught anywhere in Simcoe County qualify.
“I’m really glad that we didn’t cancel it. We came up with a really safe method for the Perch Festival,” said Lafontaine. That’s because people don’t have to catch a tagged perch; all perch count and daily entries will be registered in a computer generated draw for prizes based on sending a photo of your catch.
“It’s not a good thing for me because I used to go fishing (to get the perch for tagging) and tell people I was working. Not this year,” laughed Bunker. It won’t be easy to game the system and enter the same fish twice. “Even though people think Zebra’s have the same stripes, not all fish are alike.”
Volume counts more this year too.
“The more days you fish the more chances you have to win. Our (grand) prize boat is now worth about $33,000. It’s loaded up. It’s a fisherman’s dream, and of course you have about $80,000 worth of cash and prizes on the table.”
Despite the late start, a healthy number of entrants are anticipated.
“Right now our numbers are not too bad at all. We honored last year’s; I think we gave just 6 registrations from the total. We’re probably normal right now.” Bunker and company will be spending extra time hyping the great outdoors – and focusing on making it a family affair.
“Once you get the lawn growing, people stop fishing, so we’re really pushing to spend that time with your family and relatives to go out fishing. It will be more of a boating event now because the perch are little bit further out, they’re not in shore, but perch are everywhere.”
The festival ends June 26. Then Bunker will turn attention to other waterfront events, even if the schedule is not as heavy as in 2019.
“We’re still going to put the lights up (for Christmas in June). We just are not trying to put people too close together. The Waterfront Festival we’re just cautiously looking at, as well as the Pirate Party. Those are the only two.”
(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia)