Future of Saanich Peninsula visitor services in the air

Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce may curtail services if new dollars are not found.

Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Denny Warner stands outside the Pat Bay Highway Visitor Information Centre. The facility was re-opened last year and has helped generate most of Sidney’s tourist traffic this season.

Visitors to the Saanich Peninsula’s tourism information centres were up in 2015, but the money to keep those same centres afloat is not keeping pace.

That has the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce rethinking what visitor services they are going to be able to afford to keep running.

Doug Walker, a director on the Chamber’s board, says they have been supplementing visitor services at both their booth at the Anacortes Ferry terminal and the Pat Bay Visitor Centre on the highway. The latter facility had been closed  for close to two years until the Chamber found support to re-open it last year.

That, however, may be short-lived as the Chamber looks at its finances for the coming year.

In a presentation recently to Sidney town council, Walker said having to add more of their own money into the operation of visitor services on the Saanich Peninsula is stressing their budget.

“We cannot do it,” he said.

The Chamber has already approached the Districts of Central and North Saanich, seeking additional funding for a service Walker said benefits the entire Peninsula.

To date, he said, neither municipality has offered money to help run those services.

Only Sidney contributed to the Chamber’s visitor services programs — $60,000 a year specifically to operate the brick Visitor Centre on Beacon Avenue.

“We went to North Saanich and Central Saanich not really expecting any support at all,” said Walker, noting that both Districts have traditionally not contributed to the service.

Without extra help, he added, there will be ramifications.

“We will provide services at the Pat Bay centre and for our new Sidney ambassador program until September 2016,” he said.

After that, Walker strongly hinted that services at both the Anacortes Ferry terminal and on Beacon Avenue could be in danger of ending, due to lack of funds.

Walker said the Chamber is willing to renegotiate its service contract with the Town of Sidney, with a focus on reviewing their options to deliver visitor services. This season, the Chamber began a new program — Sidney ambassadors — on a pilot program grant from Destination BC. It was simply a team of people on the street and at various events, providing visitor information to people.

Sidney councillors suggested their neighbouring municipalities should reconsider participating,  as they benefit from the program. Coun. Mervyn Lougher-Goodey asked where Visitor Centre volunteers were sending people in Central and North Saanich.

Morgan Shaw, the manager of the Beacon Avenue Centre, said they send a lot of people to Butchart Gardens (Central Saanich) and to agri-tourism operations and events in North Saanich. She added their focus is on the Pat Bay Highway facility and Sidney.

Chamber Executive Director Denny Warner told council it costs around $118,000 to run all visitor programs. In 2015, that resulted in a net loss of $415.

Mayor Steve Price asked Warner if there had ever been funding from their neighbours. Warner replied, no.

“I hope the message reaches North Saanich and Central Saanich,” Price said, “that we all benefit from the service.”

In 2015, said Walker, the Chamber’s volunteers recorded around 45,000 visitors at the Pat Bay centre alone — 69 per cent of all visitor traffic. The Beacon Avenue location, he added, saw a 15 per cent increase in visitor traffic last year.