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FVRD to support hotel tax expansion in Hemlock, Harrison Mills despite area director opposition

Electoral Area C director Wendy Bales had voted earlier to prevent the tax from coming to the area
Visitors to the Sandpiper Golf Course taking in the eagle extravaganza at the 24th annual Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival in 2019. Electoral Area C director Wendy Bales has said her area is being overrun with tourism and doesn’t need additional marketing. (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)

The Fraser Valley Regional District will be supporting the expansion of Tourism Harrison’s hotel tax, despite the local area director opposing the move.

In the FVRD board meeting Thursday night (March 18), directors were set to vote on bringing the hotel tax to Ryder Lake and Cultus Lake for Tourism Chilliwack. Tourism Harrison’s aim to bring the hotel tax to Electoral Area C, which includes Harrison Mills and Hemlock Valley, was not originally on the agenda.

For years, Harrison Hot Springs has collected a three per cent hotel tax on accommodation sales and transferred that money to Tourism Harrison. The tax, known as the Municipal and Regional District Tax or MRDT, is intended to help tourism organizations with marketing their region and makes up the bulk of Tourism Harrison’s funding.

In early February, Tourism Harrison decided to collect the hotel tax on its own, and also expand its coverage area to include the District of Kent and Electoral Area C.

RELATED: Tourism Harrison to become new recipient of hotel tax

In order to expand the hotel tax to those areas, Tourism Harrison needs to have 51 per cent of the businesses on board with its plan and submit an application to the province by March 31.

There are 19 accommodations businesses in Harrison Hot Springs, the District of Kent and Electoral Area C. Three of the five businesses in Kent approved of the MRDT.

In Electoral Area C, the issue is more divisive. Although many businesses have written letters of support for the MRDT — including the Sasquatch Crossing Eco Lodge, the Sandpiper Resort and the Sasquatch Inn — others are not in favour.

Owner of Sasquatch Mountain Resort Ralph Berezan, for example, said he does not want MRDT in his resort because he is hoping it will eventually become its own municipality and manage those concerns itself.

RELATED: Sasquatch resort expansion to see revenue-sharing between province, Sts’ailes

Residents also had qualms about the proposal, which area director Wendy Bales shared in the March 11 Electoral Area Services Committee meeting. She said residents were feeling “overwhelmed with the amount of tourism we have,” adding that there had been negative impacts in regards to garbage and policing.

She also said she hadn’t “really seen the local businesses suffering from a lack of tourism,” and suggested the revised Official Community Plan should be completed before MRDT was brought to the area.

In that meeting, directors voted not to support the MRDT expansion in Electoral Area C.

RELATED: Fraser Valley Regional District releases draft Hemlock Valley OCP

However, the FVRD board meeting on March 18 saw a change of heart, after Tourism Harrison Mills volunteer Lesa Lacey gave an impassioned presentation on how COVID-19 has impacted tourism and what the MRDT could help accomplish.

In her presentation, Lacey gave statistics from the last year, which saw job and revenue losses. The Sasquatch Inn having to lay off 23 of its staff due to closures, for example, and the Sandpiper Resort lost $500,000 in revenue due to fewer weddings and banquets. Although Sandpiper did double the rounds of golf played, Lacey said that may not continue after COVID.

RELATED: Tourism, small business getting COVID-19 help, B.C. minister says

Lacey also said that Bales hadn’t adequately consulted with business owners or the local First Nations before making her decision to oppose the MRDT, and that many in the region and outside of it were in support.

“The introduction of MRDT will allow us to direct funding, not just to advertising, but to encourage tourism in areas that are under-touristed and move tourism away from areas that are over-touristed,” she said.

“The tourists are already coming,” she added. “Having MRDT as a tool allows our community more control and a voice in how that tourism impacts our community.

After the presentation other FVRD directors engaged in a lengthy discussion. Bales continued to share her concerns for residents, saying: “I do understand that businesses are suffering, but residents are suffering too.”

Nearly every other director spoke favourably of the hotel tax for the impact it would have on tourism in Area C and outside of it.

Harrison mayor Leo Facio brought forward the motion that the FVRD support the inclusion of Electoral Area C in Tourism Harrison’s hotel tax, with the rational that there was nothing communities could do to stop tourists from coming, and it would be better to manage them through Tourism Harrison’s marketing.

“If I laid my body across the highway, they would still be coming to Harrison,” he said.

RELATED: 2020 saw low hotel use, high daytrippers for Harrison Hot Springs

Director Dennis Adamson, who represents the vast Electoral Area B near Hope, had voted to approve the Area C inclusion earlier but spoke against the new motion during the FVRD meeting, saying that it was “stripping an electoral director from the power to represent her people.”

Electoral Area F director Hugh Davidson agreed.

“This really is a case of, in my mind, the larger municipalities essentially treating the electoral areas as a resource to be consumed for the benefits of their own businesses,” he said.

Ultimately, the majority of directors supported the motion, with Bales, Davidson and Adamson opposed.

Director Orion Engar, who represents the Ryder Lake area and helped develop the plan for Electoral Area E’s MRDT, suggested that a committee could be created to help residents advocate with Tourism Harrison. Bales said the residents didn’t want a committee and that option was not included as part of the motion.

The approval from the FVRD will go to support Tourism Harrison’s application to the province for the MRDT, but it does not seal the deal. The organization will still to get the District of Kent’s approval — up for discussion in council Monday (March 22) — as well as have a majority of businesses on board with the plan. Tourism Harrison’s application will need to be submitted by March 31.

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