For nearly a decade I've heard many discussions and debates focused on how to turn Meaford into a year-round tourist destination. Most of those discussions end in frustration, but as we've seen proven by Mother Nature over the past week, if you build it, they will come.
While Meaford has become a popular summer and autumn destination for Ontario day-trippers, and even for some travelling from further afield, the winter months have proven more challenging for attracting tourists.
The appeal of Meaford as a getaway destination in the warmer months is obvious. From beaches to golf courses, to prime fishing spots and fantastic trails, there's plenty to promote, and plenty for visitors to do when they visit Meaford, but in the winter, not so much. Unlike some of our neighbours, we don't have the luxury of a ski hill or resort within the municipality, we lack a range of accommodation options including a full service hotel that could entice visitors to stay awhile, and without features like those, it is difficult to market Meaford as a winter destination.
If you've driven along Bayfield Street over the past couple of weeks, however, you will no doubt have noticed every street-side parking space occupied, and the parking lot at Fred Raper Park has been packed from breakfast time through dinner time with vehicles and people. What have all those people been doing in the middle of March? Viewing and photographing a pile of blue ice that has formed along the waterfront. That's it. No snowboarding, no downhill tubing, no snowshoe excursions, just a pile of ice.
As was mentioned at council this week, all of that activity along the waterfront has translated into a mid-winter boost for businesses in the area, and as the Deputy Mayor joked, if we'd been able to charge $10 per head we'd likely have the money to fix the storm-caused gaps in the breakwall, the Feds be damned.
Another councillor noted that it's a shame we couldn't recreate the ice phenomenon each year to help bring visitors – and their wallets – into the municipality in the winter months.
While I've heard many suggest over the years that Meaford simply isn't well positioned for winter tourism – we're too far from major cities, we don't have winter attractions, and so on – I would suggest that the pile of ice sitting on our shore at the very least proves that Meaford's location isn't really a hindrance for attracting winter visitors, we just need to have something for them to do, even if that something is a pile of ice.
I've seen photos of the blue ice posted on social media and other websites by locals and from others outside the municipality who made the trek to Meaford to see the pile of blue ice for themselves. In fact, as was mentioned at council on Monday, Grey County Tourism has said that the photo of the blue ice that they had put on their Facebook page was the most viewed post ever for them, so clearly it doesn't take anything complicated or elaborate to attract attention.
I've often had the feeling that many have simply resigned themselves to the fact that Meaford is unlikely to become a winter destination, so why even bother trying? Why not just focus on attracting more visitors in the summer and autumn months? The overwhelming response to a pile of ice should be cause for reconsideration of that notion. Obviously we can't recreate a natural phenomenon year after year, but it's been proven that people will make the trek to our neck of the woods in the winter months if there's something of interest for them to see or do.
Perhaps we in this municipality need to collectively don our thinking caps once again to see if we could create some sort of winter event aimed at attracting visitors, as does the Scarecrow Invasion in the early autumn for example. A well-run, and well-promoted, winter event could very well prove to be the spark needed to move this municipality toward a winter tourism initiative that could be good for Meaford's businesses and the community at large.