The two veteran City of Kawartha Lakes councillors, whose wards cover the Fenelon Falls area (Coun. Strangway in Ward 5 and Coun. Elmslie in Ward 6) say budget cuts at Parks Canada will have a devastating impact on the local economy if operation times are reduced at the Trent-Severn Waterway's locks. Mr. Hinton, too, paints a bleak picture.
About two weeks ago, Parks Canada announced it is facing $29 million in budget cuts. While details are not yet available, the operating season for the Trent-Severn could be shortened from between four and 12 weeks.
Parks Canada, which oversees the waterway announced plans to reduce the length of its season and hours of operation to "periods of highest requirements" for the boating season and the associated workforce. Last week, Carol Sheedy, vice-president of operations of eastern Canada for Parks Canada, said what exactly the reductions will be has yet to be finalized, but service will be focused on periods of high use.
"We will be aligning the length of the season, the hours of operation, and the personal service at locks on the canals to better reflect the patterns of use and to provide better value to Canadians."
Ms Sheedy said over the last 25 years, boating use has dropped by more than a third, but the cost per boat to maintain the waterway has risen. She added the fees boaters pay have been frozen for the last four years.
Coun. Elmslie said the decision will have a big impact on the number of boaters who use the waterway. That translates to "all the people who stop at the locks and visit Fenelon Falls to shop, buy food...I can't recall a bigger threat to this area than this."
He pointed out that all five locks within the City (Kirkfield, Rosedale, Fenelon Falls, Lindsay and Bobcaygeon) are tourist draws for boaters and land visitors alike - and, that translates to tourist dollars.
He noted how the addition of extra docking space and electric power at the lock in Fenelon Falls boosted the local economy; last year businesses reported an increase of up to 40 per cent.
"Businesses here depend on the summer tourist season," he said. "This will be devastating."
Coun. Strangway said shortening the days the locks are open will come down to how it will be done. Currently, the season starts on the May long weekend and runs until a few days after Thanksgiving weekend in October. Coun. Strangway said he understands there are times, such as early or late season weekdays, when few boats go through the locks and cost savings need to be addressed.
"But, what will happen? Are they talking only operating the locks in July and August? I'm very, very worried about the impact of this on the marine industry and the tourism."
Coun. Strangway said he believes a much more aggressive advertising campaign to promote the waterway is a better solution than reducing the times the locks are open. He noted the "vast majority of visitors to the locks come by land."
"Do you ever go to Fenelon Falls or Bobcaygeon and see the number of people just watching the boats go through?"
Mr. Hinton said the decision will impact all three of his businesses. He operates Fenelon Falls Boat Cruises, which average 70 to 100 people a day on the Kawartha Spirit. He and his son also operate R&R Houseboats and the Kawartha Lakes Marina.
He estimated he could lose 60 per cent of his business for the boat cruises if the locks close for several weeks. And, that's just the beginning.
"We just bought 16 houseboats. It's a five-year project to recondition them and put them into service," he said. "If I'd known this could happen, I never would have bought that many."
Mr. Hinton said he attended a meeting last week with the union that represents Parks Canada employees who operate the locks.
"This is not about hours the locks are open; that's where everyone is getting confused," he said. "It's about weeks. Parks Canada is talking about cutting the season by four weeks this year and possibly eight weeks in 2013. I was told at the meeting that layoff notices for [lock employees] will be issued around Sept. 16 this year, instead of mid-October."
Mr. Hinton wondered aloud why the province is running campaigns to promote boating in Ontario when the federal government is considering shutting down the locks during peak season.
"They cut the hours back about four years ago; closing at 7 p.m. instead of 8, and we worked around that," he said. "It had an impact on our dinner cruises. But, I have a lot of people who go on the fall colours tours to the Kirkfield lock. That will be gone. As for houseboats, the Kawartha Lakes is the houseboating capital of Ontario.
"People aren't going to come watch a lock that isn't open. What are they doing? Welcome to the Kawarthas; we're only open in July and August?"
-with files from Joel Wiebe