St. Stephen searches for tourism solution

ST. STEPHEN – The provincially run visitor information centre on Route 170, St. Stephen, has been shuttered for the past two summers. Tourism, Heritage and Culture Communications Officer Coreen Enos sent an email statement that confirms for this summer the “future is uncertain.”

The statement blames COVID and border closures for the shuttering. The statement continues, “We are working with the local communities to determine the approach moving forward.”

The Town of St. Stephen seems to have taken a two-pronged approach to fill the void left by the province in the area of tourist information; deal with the immediate situation and plan for the future. Director of Community Services, Kev Sumner, said his department is readying for this summer as they did for the past one. The town is seeking funding so that several students can be hired to staff an information kiosk near the St. Stephen wharf.

The town’s website says last year the kiosk was open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., from July 1 to Labour Day. Sumner admits the kiosk does not have wireless network or washrooms, but these can be found nearby, beside the St. Croix Public Library.

One distinct advantage of the in-town kiosk location over the provincial visitor centre on the highway, Sumner says is “Visitors come into town. They don’t just get their gas and information and get back on the highway.”

Sumner is smitten with what the town and area have to offer. “There’s just so much here,” says Sumner, who has been in his position since June 2019. He is a recent transplant from western Canada and before, the United Kingdom. Sumner says that he and Events Coordinator Michelle Vest had “some knowledge” of tourism, but they decided more expert knowledge was needed.

The town and Future St. Stephen decided to work together on the tourism issue. Future St. Stephen is funded in part by the town and works in partnership with it as town’s agency for economic development. Kendall Kadatz began as president in 2019 and believed tourism could be part of Future St. Stephen’s duties.

Kadatz knew the town had received a new logo in 2013 and a tag line, In the Middle of Everywhere, but had no strategy as to how to implement these. To help move tourism forward, Future St. Stephen and the town decided to pursue a destination marketing study and strategy report.

With Future St. Stephen as “the instigator and collaborator,” as Kadatz says, the project received financial support from the federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and New Brunswick’s Tourism Heritage and Culture.

The town contributed $5000 of the $30,000 study cost, Sumner confirms in an email. The study took place from July to October. The final report completed in November 2021 was titled “Town of St. Stephen Destination Product and Market Readiness Strategy Plan.”

Community development consultant Iimagine which developed the study, is a Prince Edward Island based company with Harvey Sawler as its principal. In the study, Sawler claims to be familiar with St. Stephen. Additionally, he lists among his many professional positions that of “Executive Director of the New Brunswick Tourism Secretariat (1992-1998).”

To complete the study, Sawler gathered information from stakeholders in workshops and interviews, assessed data and used his vast experience in the field of provincial tourism.

The plan called for focus on the Bay of Fundy experience, urging St. Stephen to present itself as “Mile One” or the ignition point of tourist’s Fundy Bay experience.

It recommended a reworking of the Dover Hill to King Street corridor and envisioned a new tourist pavilion near the Garcelon Civic Center. Another aspect was a re-imagining of events such as the Chocolate Festival, as well as renewing and repackaging The Chocolate Museum, The Chocolatier, David A. Ganong Chocolate Park and surrounding area into a “Chocolate Discovery Centre.”

Kadatz said the feedback from stakeholders had been that “there was an over-emphasis on the Bay of Fundy.” As well, the all-or-nothing approach towards tourism wasn’t in line with what the town spends in that area, which Sumner confirms in an email as about 1 per cent of the annual budget. Rather than being a tourism-first economy, Kadatz defines St. Stephen as “more a rural manufacturing town with supporting government positions and retail to round that out.”

“It was not a realistic assessment,” said Kadatz. “It’s not where we are going, it’s too far a stretch.” Kadatz explained “what we were looking for was how do we up our game? How do we go three steps further, not 13 or 15 steps.” Kadatz’s opinion of the study is, “It seemed the only option was to take 20 steps, and we’re not going to be another Saint Andrews.”

The Saint Croix Courier asked Saint Stephen Area Chamber of Commerce president Sarah Conley her thoughts on tourism directions in the town at present. Addressing the provincial Visitor Information Centre, Conley, says “I 100 per cent can’t believe it’s sitting empty.” “I am,” she adds, “feeling let down in a sense.”

When asked about the destination market readiness study, Conley believes the report “seemed to possibly miss the mark a little bit in the views of community stakeholders in the fact that it was preoccupied with one theme.”

“The report didn’t,” Conley continues, “look enough at the secondary themes that we are known for and that didn’t sit well with the local stakeholders.” Conley realizes that the report was “a beneficial task.

“It’s good to have outside eyes look at the community and see things that we can’t imagine.” Conley hopes a town tourism strategy will be put into place that “will benefit businesses and steps taken that will attract other business to the region or expand upon what is here.” She is positive about moving forward. “I am excited,” Conley expands, “to think that it will be more localized strategy.”

Kadatz and Sumner feel the town is not anywhere near the point of implementing the strategy plan as presented, but they are certain they do not want the valuable information gathered to be lost, or the momentum to disappear.

“We don’t want this to die for another five years,” Kadatz says. Sumner agrees fully with this position. Additionally, there is some valuable information to gather from the report. “There is some low hanging fruit,” said Sumner.

The full report had not yet been presented to council, because Sumner wanted to be sure what next steps could be recommended. On Jan. 26, St. Stephen council passed a motion to strike an ad hoc tourism initiative committee.