Faced with more than half of its yearly visitors coming from the Capital Regional District and statistics that show overall visits are dropping, the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre is throwing in behind the proposed Business Improvement Area and looking to the sea for inspiration.
Angus Matthews, executive director of SODC, told Sidney town council Monday night in a budget overview that the aquarium is looking to the future and without change in the community, it’s not looking all that bright.
“Fifty-four per cent of our visitors in 2012 are coming from the Island,” Matthews said, noting 46 per cent of those are from the South Island. “We’re locked into a bit of a pattern and we need to break out into the broader tourism market.”
Over the last three years, Matthews said the SODC has attracted more than 360,000 people to its facility — that’s 120,000 per year, on average. This year, he said a trend that has been consistent over that time is showing a decline in visitors even during the peak tourist season in Sidney.
“Yes, it’s a big concern and not necessarily sustainable,” he said, responding to questions from the council.
It’s one of the reasons why the SODC has thrown its support behind a plan to implement a business improvement area (BIA) in Sidney’s downtown core. That plan, led by the Sidney Business Development Group and now before town council for a decision on approvals process, would collect fees from member business owners. Those fees would be used as marketing seed money to promote Sidney and, it is thought, attract more shoppers and tourists to the area.
“Without a doubt, we would be one of the main beneficiaries of that,” Matthews said.
The SODC has spent in the neighbourhood of $536,000 on advertising and marketing in the last three years. A report on the aquarium’s 2012/13 budget states they have overspent in that department in each of the last three years. This year, the marketing budget is slashed to $65,000, not including staff time.
It’s one of the aquarium’s cost-saving measures in their budget, which also raises its admission fees.
Yet while the SODC lost money in each of its first three years of operation, Matthews said they’ve cut the red in half each year and are looking at a small budget surplus in 2013.
To keep their bottom line on the grow, Matthews outlined the aquarium’s next big plan, one he said they hope will make Sidney a hub for ocean exploration at scientific and family levels.
“We can’t grow our existing facility,” he explained, “so we’ll grow outside.”
A concept called the Salish Sea Institute is being developed by the SODC board and staff, with plans to roll out new programs and facilities over the next 18 months. Using the Salish Sea Marine Conservation Area and working with local First Nations, Parks Canada and other stakeholders, the idea is to offer high-end eco-adventure tourism, citizen science opportunities, national and international research outstations and family outings to unique waters and beaches near Sidney.
“If Tofino can sell storms, we should be able to sell beaches during the day and really good hotels at night,” Matthews said.
He said they’re estimating it will cost $180,000 to start the institute, which would be a non-profit group, linked to the SODC. They have already raised $60,000, Matthews said. It will cost an estimated $1.5 million more to build outstations, a First Nations big house and other infrastructure.
Matthews said it’s a step to help draw more visitors to the area, helping keep the community vibrant and thriving.
“We need to think big,” he said, “like we did when we first built the Ocean Discovery Centre.”