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Raising revenue from visitation a Canmore election issue

Canmore council candidates discuss the elusive resort municipality status and other possibilities in raising income from the increased visitation being experienced in the Bow Valley.
20210612 Main Street 0035
Tourists walk around artist Cedar Mueller's metal sculpture Ferdinand, the horse, on the pedestrianized Main Street in Canmore on Saturday (June 12). EVAN BUHLER RMO PHOTO

CANMORE – The main economic driver in the Bow Valley has long been tourism.

But as visitation has significantly increased over the years, so too has the demand on infrastructure needs. While larger municipalities can count on a tax base to cover the financial damage, the small population of Canmore has seen its residents largely shoulder the cost for the mountain town.

In other tourism-based communities, the resort municipality status offers a community the opportunity to collect revenue from visitors, in turn putting it towards heavily used infrastructure needs.

However, in Alberta, the elusive status has proven difficult for Canmore, Banff and Jasper, though not for a lack of trying.

The three mountain towns have worked towards achieving the status, particularly together in the past decade. The provincial governments have been hesitant to institute the change that has become common place in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island.

The 12 candidates who responded to the Outlook said they would continue to push for the status, but many highlighted different avenues to raise revenue without the ability to collect taxes from visitors.

Mayoral candidate Sean Krausert said the push towards the status in recent years has been well done, but noted the importance of going through multiple channels such as upper levels of government, expanding contact with MLAs and engaging in a “positive public relations campaign that will inform the public as to how Alberta tourism communities are at a disadvantage compared to many of our competitors.

“In short, future efforts must make the issue not a legislative exercise, but rather a business and political exercise.”

Fellow mayoral candidate Vi Sandford said she has already had discussions with Banff-Cochrane MLA Miranda Rosin on how the status would aid the Town of Canmore.

She said their ongoing dialogue has been promising in helping to promote the need for the status since “tourism is a significant economic driver for our region.”

“I do not hesitate to reach out to build these relationships and know that we can succeed when we work diligently and collaboratively together. I and my council colleagues have worked effectively with all levels of government in the past, and have built the bridges respectfully and effectively.”

During the last provincial budget, the Alberta government made the ambitious goal of doubling tourism revenue to about $20 billion annually by 2030. The figure raised eyes in tourism-based communities, particularly as visitation has expanded in the regional provincial parks and put further stress on an already taxed system.

In addition to lobbying the government for the status, council candidate Wade Graham believes there are options in the Municipal Government Act (MGA) for a vacancy tax that is structured as a primary residency rebate program.

"Other provinces have seen net benefit from taxation systems like this. Canmore took a look at a program like this several years ago but there unfortunately wasn't the political appetite for it at the time. Maybe now is the time for such a program. Let's turn vacant homes into affordable homes.”

Longtime Canmore resident Jeff Mah echoed Graham’s push for the continuation of lobbying the province when it comes to the importance of the resort municipality status.

“As a community, we need to develop channels of communication and trust with elected officials and civil servants in Edmonton,” he said. "This has to be a focused and ongoing initiatives with someone consistently working on this as a key part of their job description, rather than sporadic messaging.”

But while lobbying is one method to pursue, both the Towns of Banff and Canmore have seen success with paid parking. At first highly contentious, figures have shown with a robust public transit system that paid parking hasn’t impacted locals as first expected by many residents.

In addition, Quarry Lake paid parking brought in more than $200,000 in revenue in its first year and paid parking in Banff has also seen success. The Town of Canmore is expected to implement its long-discussed plans for paid downtown parking in 2022.

Mah said a downtown parking program for non-residents would help with infrastructure costs.

“To further incentivize tourists, our merchants could provide a partial parking refund if visitors spend a certain amount at local businesses. It's reasonable for visitors to pay for parking when visiting a tourist destination – let's take advantage of this in a thoughtful manner.”

Rob Seeley, seeking his third council term, highlighted the importance of working with partners such as Tourism Canmore Kananaskis, the Downtown Canmore BIA and the Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association to push for increased revenue from tourism to help fund infrastructure needs.

He suggested the option of a land bank to assist with affordable housing, but also to support infrastructure needs in the community.

“Regenerative tourism is likely to have costs and will be a key approach to our tourism efforts,” Seeley said.

Jeff Hilstad, also seeking re-election, emphasized the need to continue to advocate provincial ministers and the province for the status, but noted the difficult path forward.

He stressed the importance of working with Banff and Jasper to lobby for changes in the MGA. However, the early success of paid parking has also shown a method of raising revenue.

“The revenues generated by paid parking help fund programs such as fare-free public transit, and these revenues can also help fund improvements in the areas where the fees are taken, such as Quarry Lake, or the town centre. Paid parking revenues can also contribute to future infrastructure such as intercept parking.”

Incumbent councillor Karen Marra said paid parking is the best option in the short term until the resort municipality status could be reached.

While lobbying the province is vital, the need to look at all tools available for generating infrastructure revenue is key.

“Paid parking is our main tool for raising funds at this point. The net revenue will be used to cover the fare recovery for fare-free local transit. The remaining revenue will be used to fund improvements where paid parking has been implemented, as well as offsite parking, related to infrastructure such as intercept parking and funds allocated to the Town centre enhancement plan.”

The efforts to lobby the province have yet to make headway, leaving both Banff and Canmore implementing paid parking that has seen success.

In the past decade, the Town of Canmore has met with more than 15 provincial ministers in multiple ministries, regularly met with administrative representatives in provincial departments and advocated changes in the MGA and the determinant of population regulation.

The last major push was tied to the bid for the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Games bid in 2018, but the City of Calgary plebiscite dashed the hopes of valley residents and political leaders.

The three communities commissioned a report in 2016 that showed despite having less than one per cent of Alberta’s population they account for 13 per cent of the province’s visitors. At the time, $756-million in tax revenue was collected from the three mountain towns, but 97 per cent of it went to the province or federal government.

The provincial government applies a tourism tax on hotel stays, but it is put back into the province’s vault and not able to be touched by the municipality. The levy was temporarily halted during COVID-19, but is once again being collected by the Alberta government.

With each new municipal or provincial government, the hope for a change is aimed for but fails to gain traction.

Hans Helder, a prior two-term councillor, called resort municipality status “the Holy Grail for solving all the issues related to the visitor economy.”

Helder said while Banff, Jasper and Canmore have worked diligently to one day get the status, he said working with all municipalities in the province to gain taxation authority could have a better advantage of lobbying the government than just three municipalities.

He said lobbying the province to use the tourism levy is also an option worth pursuing.

“In the short-term, we have to look at our own revenue generation tools for answers. Hotels already pay full commercial taxes, so one could argue they are already paying for visitor services. Visitor accommodation or tourist homes also already pay a higher level of taxation. Maybe they should pay a bit more.”

Vijay Domingo highlighted the “significant opportunity” resort municipality status could have for Canmore. He mentioned learning from the province’s concerns in granting the status and then having the chance to address them.

He also said the reports and documents should be “living documents” and frequently updated to make for better cases with the Alberta government.

While options such as paid parking and visitor activity fees have brought in revenue, he noted commercial businesses could help.

“The other municipal revenue stream we should acknowledge is the growth in commercial businesses related to tourism which diversify and contribute to our property tax base, which is the largest revenue stream for the municipality.”

Jyn San Miguel said it would be a priority in attempting to achieve the status and that continuing to work with Banff and Jasper is the path forward.

In addition to infrastructure, he said if achieved, the extra revenue could be put to help with affordability issues in the community.

“If we collect a dedicated tax from tourists, the residents would be less burdened with a significant increase in annual tax. It can collectively result in more affordable housing.”

Joanna McCallum noted COVID-19 has slowed the advocacy for resort municipality status, but it is important for all voices from the municipality, the province and the business community to be on the same page.

The conflicting voices can leave the province hearing a different tune, so working together in the same direction is key in making headway. She also said though paid parking isn’t perfect and can impact residents, it has proven to work in raising needed revenue.

“Past conversations have not been successful as the entire industry has not been on board with the idea of special status. Therefore, when being lobbied, provincial reps are hearing one story from one tourism group and another story from another group.

“I believe that one solution is to have the entirety of the tourism industry and beyond begin to row in the same direction. I believe that this would be one way to get us traction as a destination.”

A 2017 report from Jasper highlighted despite having about 4,500 residents, the townsite is responsible for funding services and infrastructure for up to 25,000 people each day. Despite being only at peak population a few months of the year, the maintenance costs are necessary year-round.

The higher visitation rates have significantly added to the needs of the community. The Canmore RCMP explained to council earlier this year the need for additional officers due to more visitation, while Canmore Fire-Rescue and paramedics are kept busy throughout the peak season responding to calls.

Though the successive provincial governments have kiboshed any plans to grant resort municipality status, B.C. has shown it can work, said Tanya Foubert, a council candidate and longtime community journalist.

She said establishing the amount of the operating and capital budgets that are influenced by tourism needs is a first step in highlighting the stress visitation plays on local taxation.

“We know we pay higher taxes to deliver services because of tourism – let’s dig into those numbers and better understand what that means.”

In Alberta, Foubert pointed to Calgary and Edmonton each having city charters that can do much the same as resort municipality status offers, showing there is precedent in the province for special operating status as a municipality.

“The best pitch, in my opinion, is to keep it simple and focus on the fact we already have a tourism tax – on hotel room nights. Those funds are put into general revenue. In B.C., they are used to fund tourism-related programs, services and projects for the resort municipality of Whistler,” she said, having previously lived in Whistler. "That means we aren’t asking for a new tax, just reallocation of an existing tax.”

Council candidate Christoph Braier and mayoral candidate Jeff Laidlaw didn’t respond to the Outlook before publication.