The economic driver in the Bow Valley is and will continue to be tourism.
Though other businesses and industries are important, tourism will remain king for the foreseeable future.
The Oct. 18 municipal election has brought forward the tourism-related concerns of residents and highlighted the impact the sector has on valley communities, particularly the towns of Banff and Canmore.
While locals are often frustrated with the level of visitation in the region, some of the council candidates in the two towns have brought forward new ideas or a wish to continue forward with ongoing efforts to allow a co-existence.
In Banff, the pedestrian zone had thousands of walkers regularly moving up and down Banff Ave in the summer. Similarly, Canmore has closed its Main Street for the past two summers.
Both towns have promoted the use of public transit – which is free in Canmore – and Roam Transit also introduced new routes to reach Lake Louise and Johnston Canyon.
As municipal staff and councils work towards making life manageable for residents and still allow for tourism-related businesses to thrive, without the province getting on board the approach is merely a Band-Aid.
Earlier this year, the Alberta government announced in its budget it expected the money brought in by tourism to double to about $20 billion in 2030.
For communities such as Banff and Canmore already taxed to the limit by visitation, it is a sign things need to change and the Alberta government has to come to the table to help the mountain towns.
The province has refused every proposal and advocacy attempt to provide resort municipality status to Banff, Canmore and Jasper for the last two decades. The move would require a change in the Municipal Government Act (MGA) and allow the tourism-based municipalities to collect extra revenue from visitors, which in turn could go into needed infrastructure repairs.
The status exists in British Columbia and Prince Edward Island and has brought financial relief for taxpayers in those communities.
Banff has heavily lobbied the province for the change since the 1990s and Canmore joined in putting pressure on the Edmonton-based government, particularly in the last decade.
Dozens of ministers in several departments have been lobbied, but to no avail.
Both Banff and Canmore have found methods to collect some revenue from visitors that is legally allowed under the MGA.
Banff brought in paid parking in its downtown, while Canmore received about $220,000 – three times more than they originally anticipated – on parking in Quarry Lake.
Canmore will also introduce downtown paid parking in 2022, which will undoubtedly help Town coffers and ease the infrastructure costs slightly off the backs of taxpayers.
When Canmore council received its tourism task force report at its Oct. 5 meeting, the consultant called the status “an uphill battle” but if permitted it would be “a magic bullet.”
If the province is serious about tourism being a major economic force in Alberta, it needs to work with the Bow Valley and the incoming municipal councils on a tourism strategy that promotes sustainability, aids in infrastructure costs and ensures the popular regional spots are not overrun.
For many residents, municipal government is their main point of contact when it comes to the public sector. They collect the taxes, you can see council members on the street and are often able to email or call them and get an answer without jumping through hoops. However, it’s the lowest of the three governmental tiers and largely the plaything of the province.
Any serious change needs to have not only the local municipalities and businesses working together, but it is essential to have a willing province at the table ready to make concessions.