For Tourism to Thrive, Festivals and Artists Must Be Supported

The Winning Entry at the Long John Jamboree's Ice Carving Competition in 2015

I began knocking on doors as a part of my mayoral campaign this past Saturday, and two things quickly became apparent.  First, people are pretty much all aware that over the next decade our economy will enter into a transition period related to the decline of the diamond mining sector.  But secondly, they also share my bewilderment and optimism at growth in the tourism sector.  When you walk around Old Town, or near Somba Ke Park in the afternoons and evenings these days, it feels like we are living in a completely different city than we were five years ago.  This gives people a lot of hope.  And with each passing year the difference is noticeable. Tourism is thriving.  It's amazing.

But as great as this growth is, people are also worried that we are not doing enough - that in a globally competitive industry, our offering to tourists is not adequate and that at some point this is going to come back to haunt us.  I agree with this view, but I think we have a window of opportunity to do something about it.

One of the things I've been talking about a lot with folks is the fact that all of our town's residents and businesses need the tourism sector to thrive if we are going to rise above the economic challenges ahead, but in order for tourism to thrive there is one group of residents and businesses that will have to do most of the heavy lifting - the arts and culture sector.  Tourists want more content - they want authentic Yellowknife and Northwest Territories experiences - and we need to turn to our arts and culture entrepreneurs and organizations to provide those experiences.

The next Mayor of Yellowknife will play a key role in working with our neighbours in Ndilǫ, Dettah and Behchokǫ̀, as well as arts organizations and individual entrepreneurs across the NWT and bringing them all together with sources of funding - both private and public - to create new arts and culture experiences, ranging from individual public art installations to festivals to bricks and mortar infrastructure.  

Besides these external opportunities, there are important internal ones as well - and the City's Grant Review Committee is central to those.  Last year I had the opportunity to join the Committee for the first time, and I was very excited to do so.  For years I was on the other side of the grant application process through my involvement with the Long John Jamboree, and it always seemed to me that the Committee didn't have a clear strategy besides equitably doling out as many cheques as possible to organizations that were capable of executing on their grant application proposals.  While this is all well and good for avoiding controversy (besides that which came from the capping of grants to NACC and the Yellowknife Seniors Society - a decision I fought to reverse), it doesn't allow the City to use it's grants to their full potential.  If we believe that tourism is critical to our city's future success - and the current Council holds this belief - then our allocation of grants should reflect this.

In order to line up grants with priorities, it helps to first start measuring how we are allocating grants - which sectors and types of organizations are receiving what percentage of total funding.  This is something I urged the committee to begin doing earlier this year and on Tuesday we spoke about formalizing this task even further, through annual reporting to Council.  The next step of course is to ask Council to provide guidance on which sectors should receive increases as the total pot, over time, grows in proportion with the growth of our tax base.

But this past Tuesday the Committee took what I think is a big step forward.  First, we agreed on a recommendation to Council that it establish a new multi-year grant for festivals, capped at three years and $20,000 per year, and we have included salaries as an eligible expenditure.  I've personally witnessed just how difficult is it for an event to get its feet firmly planted without the ability to make a firm commitment to an event organizer.  And asking organizers to spend the first months of every cycle chasing donations so they can cover their own pay checks is a tough proposition.  Many funding organizations have a restriction on salaries, for reasons that can be valid in many cases, but in Yellowknife, a city that needs new arts and culture content, making this change is a smart move.  The City is in a position to give festivals the support they deserve and festivals, in turn, can give arts and culture organizations and entrepreneurs some of the support they need.

The second exciting proposal that came out of Tuesday's meeting was that the City should host a workshop in November to train people to write grant proposals.  This is just one of the many ideas that was discussed for what the Committee might do in the future to urge the City to take on a new role as a capacity builder.  Executive directors of organizations across all sectors, but in particular event coordinators, need more local opportunities for training.  If we can build expertise and experience amongst the small group of hard working people in our community who take on the task of organizing festivals and events - and pay them properly - the return on these investments in terms of content creation will be huge.

The third thing that came out of Tuesday's meeting, which is unrelated to tourism so I won't go into too much detail, was that the Committee supported my recommendation that we create a new grant category - Small Neighbourhood Grants of between $50 and $500 for activities that bring neighbours together, allowing them to share skills or just to gather and get to know one another.  This new grant category is based on similar programs in other cities, and I've seen the impact they can have on building community spirit.

I'm extremely excited about the direction the Grant Review Committee appears to be taking.  This is one of those tools in the City's toolkit that has long gone under-utilized, and I look forward to seeing the results that come from these recent changes.

As it happens, there is currently a vacancy on the Committee, so if you've read this blog post in its entirely, that probably means you should apply.  If you want further background about the Committee and its work, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

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