Muskoka resident says region needs economic diversity beyond tourism following COVID-19 crisis

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Kelvin Verhey

As each new day passes, we are becoming well aware of the impending side-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in Muskoka. The reality of what this means in the coming months is riddled with gross uncertainty. Many companies have laid off their staff, Deerhurst recently comes to mind. Other companies will continue to face similar choices. How a resolution is going to play out right now is unknown, but that should put into perspective that we need to remain vigilant, open-minded, and forward thinking. Spring is approaching fast. This is normally when Muskoka starts gearing up for the coming tourist season. This is where the problem lies. End of winter preparations have been halted for many.

The tourist season has been struggling for some time, but this has effectively stopped tourism to the region entirely. This is going to make recovery more difficult. Unemployment is likely to continue to rise as very few of our construction, customer service, and hospitality related jobs are capable of being executed from isolation. Many of these jobs have become unnecessary. The fact we have no real backup plan is going to become a harsh reality soon. Anyone that has lived up here for a while knows of the woes related to life up here. However, this is something new, it’s a blanket ban. Non-tourist based industries have come and gone from the region. Several manufacturing plants have changed names over the years. One lack of industry troubles a large underground of social outcasts. Technological opportunities have always been in short supply. The only real industry of this type that appeared in the region recently came and left before most people even knew it was here. As the remaining technologists in the region exchange views, we find ourselves deeply troubled in general with the local and regional governments attitude towards this type of industry. Technology has become important in every facet of business and education. Students were sent home for the extended March Break with APP/Tablet based homework. Our reliance on technology has become so closely knit into every facet of our lives, and we do little in the region to foster these types of jobs, offer course material or community programs related to skill building in this area. We have no post-secondary education offering anything related to management, technology, or STEM in Muskoka. Despite petitions on many fronts, our learning institutions refuse to offer this type of education. This causes youth to leave the region. Many talks over the years have been had over the problems this creates in retaining a needed a workforce.

In 2011 the District of Muskoka published an Economic Profile. On page 4 of this plan, which now only exists in Google Cache you can find this optimistic overview of Muskoka. "The combination of the seasonal and permanent populations has enabled Muskoka to develop extensive communication and telecommunication infrastructure in the urban centres. This, combined with Muskoka’s highly skilled labour force, very competitive industrial and commercial taxes and an excellent quality of life, make Muskoka the ideal place to start or expand your business."

Let's do a dissection here. Quality of life for many in Muskoka has been declining for years, and their idea of a highly skilled labour force never included anything related to STEM in their inventory. When the animation studio arrived they were hoping to offer 20-30 jobs related to the field. It was met with huge optimism from the Town of Huntsville. That number quickly climbed to 50-60 jobs with salaries well above any other typical job offered in the area. When they got here, they put out the call for open positions. Imagine if you can, what it would be like coming into a region where you believe it's a ripe and fertile ground for technology, only to find when you get here, we are fundamentally in the stone ages. Attending job fairs in hopes of finding animators, riggers, texture artists, modelers, film and video editors, they ran into application programmers and people interested in game design. They attempted to take advantage of this by retooling, as game programming has several areas of overlap. It didn't end well.

As we sit in our homes with our local facilities, and government institutions closed or shutdown temporarily, the future starts to look a little bleak. Many people are worrying about how to pay their bills. Thankfully the federal government is stepping up to offer aid for those affected by pandemic related losses. Members of the Muskoka Tech Lab, nerds, geeks, and an underground of technologists are still trying to figure out a way to get Muskoka to wake up and realise we need to diversify our skill set. Since the 1980's Muskoka has been largely pushing towards expanding our tourist based lodging, service oriented roles and access to craft breweries. There are more than a few of us that think this path lacked some serious foresight. Advocating for information, deeper, richer, and more fulfilling community programs should be one of our highest priorities. This could be interpreted as a desperate attempt to end the exodus of what is left of our skilled labour. That is somewhat true, but it is also rooted in an attempt to stimulate a desperately needed sector of industry that is effectively immune to being isolated to our homes. Plans of all types have been forged in the past to bring schools, expand opportunities, and diversify, but those plans have largely failed. We need to work harder together to see them through. Our habits to fail catastrophically with follow through on hopes of the tourists fixing this mess needs to stop. The attitude of our local and regional government is that permanent residents are unable to do anything. This stems from the fact we are almost entirely based on tourism and low paying jobs in retail or grocery. Discussions in the past with the Chamber of Commerce has echoed a similar thought process. We know a lot of people used to rely on the Libraries, and the McDonald’s for internet access. With those closed we are forced to discuss the cost of internet and accessibility to it. Access to technology in general is a huge problem up here. Many of the regions remaining technologists and services are working together to try and solve that. The recent laying of fibre optics into some of the more rural areas has brought accessibility, but many still struggle with affordability.

Supporting municipally owned initiatives like Lakeland Holdings should be on the forefront so they can continue to expand services into rural regions of Muskoka. As well as our existing computers stores and other independent technologists. Online shopping has been damaging the area for years. Investing locally is more important than ever. The greater region still faces a fundamental lack of adequate infrastructure in many areas. May 4th, Star Wars day, we are supposed to be getting a new head librarian. Our hopes is that he is pro tech, pro adult education, and pro follow through on community based programming. This is going to largely require the Huntsville Library to push through renovations to fix a leaking roof, and a sewage problem. That is our largest public bank of computers in Huntsville sitting idle. None of this can move forward until management of the COVID pandemic brings social distancing to an end. Those are still quite a few ifs. We need to remember that technology programs, jobs, and industry belong here. Petition the Town you live in, the District of Muskoka, and converse among your neighbours and friends. It wasn't long ago NASA was beamed into the Huntsville Public School to have a talk with the students engaged in the First Lego Robotics Program. There are opportunities, that the nerd and geek culture know could helped revitalise tourism, engage talks, and help with skill building. Many of us have been advocating a long time for these opportunities. There has been tremendous resistance on many fronts to the development of these programs. If this problem is going to be fixed, we must all be personally responsible. It is going to continue to take strong community bonds to keep us moving forward.

During these troubled times, remember, we still live in a community that is largely still trying to cooperate to help each other. Our hearts goes out to all the families and those that are relying on jobs that are currently on hold. Keep your heads up, don't be afraid to ask for help. If anyone is desperate or in need for computer services, the techs, nerds and geeks of the region are still here. The Muskoka Tech Lab will continue to advocate for the benefit of those in need and to continue to help foster and develop community access to technological resources in Muskoka. Many people have been a vital part in helping keep this technological community project alive. You all know who you are. Give yourselves a pat on the back and keep being awesome. To the Town of Huntsville and the District of Muskoka, please get more involved, more importantly, follow through on your promises to help foster diversion. The region is relying on you to work harder on opening that door more than ever. We are on your side, and we deeply believe in helping build a better stronger future for everyone.

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