Why Elvis Matters to Collingwood

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Elvis festival

There are some things that are pointless to argue, it seems. Creationism with a fundamentalist. Anti-vaccination with a New Age wingnut. Reason and logic with local  bloggers. The value of the Elvis Festival to Collingwood with a closed-minded resident.

I recently heard complaints about the cost of the 2014 festival: $74,000. More than double what the Integrity Commissioner cost taxpayers to investigate bogus, politically-motivated claims last year.

And what did we get for that $74,000? International recognition and widespread media coverage, more than 30,000 visitors, increased revenue for our hospitality sector, a full downtown, busy restaurants and hotels, people shopping in the stores…

One cannot help but be reminded of the Monty Python skit in Life of Brian on “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

[youtube =https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9foi342LXQE]

All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

And what did we get for the almost $33,000 we spent on the Integrity Commissioner last year? Aside from humiliation, puerile finger pointing, adding another smear on our reputation and titillating the sycophant bloggers? Nada.

What would it cost to run a full-page colour ad in a major newspaper or national magazine – The Star The Globe, Macleans – advertising Collingwood? Or to produce and run a 30-second spot on national TV?

A lot more than $74,000 (a single full page ad in the Star on a Saturday is $100,690).

Even if we did so, would advertising alone attract 30,000-plus people to spend a day or even several days in our town? Would it create jobs? Bring in extra revenue for local restaurants? Would it get us worldwide recognition? Not on your Nellie.

Let’s say we offered every visitor on a certain weekend a free coffee and doughnut – a $2.50 value – would that attract 30,000 people, many of whom would eat, shop and even stay over? That’s about what the festival cost. But the economic benefit was immeasurably larger and it reached throughout the community.

It would cost a helluva a lot more than $74,000 to develop and run a new event, and anything we try will compete with a similar, already established event being hosted elsewhere. No one else has been successful with Elvis, however. We have it, it’s successful: we should capitalize on it.

Like it or not, this is a tourist town. This wasn’t a choice any politician made, nor one ever brought up at a council for debate. It’s the result of numerous factors – our desirable natural attributes, our closeness to the ski hills, water and beaches, our relatively low real estate costs (compared with the GTA), the escalating costs and dwindling availability of land in of cottage country, the province-wide change from smokestack industry to service industry… and today our livelihood depends on tourism.

Tourist towns need events and activities to attract then bring people back, to engage them, to create an environment of excitement and entertainment. Simply having hotels, restaurants and bars isn’t enough. The Village at Blue is successful because it know how to engage visitors and keep them entertained. Collingwood does not. But we’re learning.

What we need is not to dump Elvis, but to re-energize the event: to make it bigger, better, more exciting. To find ways to attract more people, to engage both visitors and locals. Pull out all the stops. It’s a resource, so let’s invest in it.

We need to think strategically, and shed this myopic view of Elvis. This is about economic development – your personal view of the man, of the performers, of the event is irrelevant. What matters is how we can leverage it for the greater good of the community.

And at the same time we need to put more effort, time and (especially) money into developing existing and new events and cultural activities so we can build a strong base year-round, not simply depend on a once-a-year festival. That of course requires a council with vision, with economic and cultural understanding, with plain old common sense… well, maybe we can elect one in the future.

And while we’re at it, we need to rethink the entire way the town manages events. They should be managed under economic development, not Parks, Rec and Culture. Events should not be mainly concerned in filling out paperwork and managing forms. That’s a bureaucratic dead end: it kills private sector initiative and inspiration. Event management should be dynamic, driven by passion and sufficiently funded to be able to help entrepreneurs develop their events.

It’s a simple economic reality: we need visitors for our commercial and retail viability. Bitching and whining about Elvis is old and tired. The jokes staled a long time ago. We need visionary thinking to make it succeed, not the usual pack of whingers to criticize it yet again.

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