New and Rehabilitated Highway Rest Areas in Algoma-Manitoulin

We are so very fortunate to live in a rugged, beautiful region with so many natural wonders and opportunities at our doorstep. What a privilege to call this place home. As I travel and meet people, it’s easy to see why businesses associated with travel and tourism in Algoma-Manitoulin have historically enjoyed economic strength and stability. But in life, things change. We cannot afford to take such benefits for granted. We must stay on top of our game, understanding that visitors’ needs and expectations change. Therefore, so must we.

The travel and tourism sector accounts for a significant portion of Northern Ontario’s economy. According to Destination Northern Ontario, the North welcomes approximately 9 million visitors annually. It generates over $1.6 billion in receipts for goods and services. They also report that the Ontario government enjoys over $500 billion in tax revenue generated here in the North. So, there is no question that they should sit up and take notice.

Given the above statistics, I have always wondered why the Ontario government has historically not fully capitalized on our assets by promoting Northern Ontario’s tourism opportunities and business strength.

According to Destination Ontario, “Sustainable tourism is defined by the United Nations Environment Program and United Nations World Tourism Organization as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” They argue that “Northern Ontario’s natural resources are the foundation of the region’s tourism experiences. It is imperative that it receives the very best care from current and future generations to ensure the sustainability of the industry.”

Over the years, my office has received many calls, letters and emails from constituents, visitors and business operators who suggest or request investment in more and better-outfitted facilities such as roadside rest areas. They call for improvements, including publicly maintained rest areas, washrooms and garbage disposal facilities on beaches and parks.

The most frequent correspondence concerns the section of the TransCanada Highway from Sault Ste. Marie northward along the coast of Lake Superior. This stretch’s scenic beauty rivals that of beaches worldwide. Some of these venues have been popular with families for generations. One constituent sent me nostalgic photos covering several decades showing dozens of cars parked in designated parking spaces created along Hwy. 17, where families gathered for swimming and picnicking along the beaches.

Historically, in some locations, the beaches had toilet facilities maintained and cleaned regularly. Today, rest areas are the responsibility of either the Ministry of Transportation (MTO), Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) or the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) – depending on the location and clientele served. However, decisions were made to save money, so the facilities became poorly maintained over time. As a result, they ended up being vandalized and, in later years, permanently closed as they were an embarrassment. The mistake was cutting the maintenance in the first place. How can we expect people to treat facilities with respect if they are not cared for by our own officials? Now, most rest area washroom facilities are entirely gone.

Over the years, I have written to various ministers, reminding them of the importance of attracting visitors to stop and enjoy the beautiful sights. Enticing people to stop and enjoy a beach, even if intended briefly, will encourage some to stay longer, buy meals, make purchases, and pay for accommodations. If they enjoy the experience, they will remember, return, and tell others.

Until recently, the ministries have responded that they saw no reason to waste tax dollars providing a service readily available at a local gas station, store or restaurant. The ministries failed to recognize several points when preparing their responses. If a person needs to use a washroom while enjoying the beach, especially with a young family, they would have to pack up to go to a business, meaning they will likely just keep on going and shorten the experience. So, forget about word-of-mouth recommendations. Also, the ministries failed to consider that disposable tourism dollars range broadly from family to family. Some can’t afford to spend $30 or $40 on a meal – just to become a paying customer permitted to use a business washroom. This is especially true last year and this year with high inflation rates. To attract and facilitate an enjoyable experience, we must make it convenient, affordable, and enjoyable.

It is important to remember that Algoma-Manitoulin is a destination where residents and visitors enjoy year-round access to our natural bounty. Living here as we do, we know the outstanding opportunities available on our doorstep, such as hunting, fishing, fall colour tours, skiing, sledding, hiking, you name it. If we want visitors to consider coming here to spend their tourist dollars, they need to feel confident that facilities are available and that we are open for business year-round.

During the pandemic, when access to businesses and their usual facilities was somewhat limited, the government chose to maintain some rest areas in winter months, including snow plowing and keeping the washrooms open. This proved to be a real hit in our region. I know this because my office received complaints when the Province reversed its practice a couple of years later, and the winter access sites were closed again between Thanksgiving and Victoria Day weekend.

I will give credit where credit is due; it seems the government may be following up with some much-needed changes to its policies and plans, hopefully encouraging tourism and recreation in the North.

A partnership was formed between the Province and the Municipality of Manitouwadge. The plan released has the facility fully operational year-round, including an Ontario Northland Bus pick-up/drop-off.

An article in the April 27, 2024, issue of The Sault Star featured a story about a rest area in Batchewana currently undergoing rehabilitation and improvement. The highway entrance and exit are being separated to make it safer for motorists. The parking lot will be reconfigured to improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety. The building will feature better lighting and enhanced washroom facilities. On top of getting these improvements, the rest of the area will be open year-round.

MTO has informed my office of several new rest area projects on the horizon for Algoma-Manitoulin, part of a “five-year expansion program to provide the public with more places to stop and rest safely. Once complete, there will be 10 new rest areas built and the rehabilitation of 14 others. Many of these rest areas will include heated all-season washrooms in the North to better serve motorists and commercial drivers. Work has already started for the new rest area facilities in Algoma-Manitoulin at Agawa Bay, Wawa, White River, Dubreuilville (Highway 17 and 519) and at the intersection of Highway 101 & 129.”

Plans for the new facilities are reportedly in the preliminary design stages; therefore, specifics are unavailable. However, we have been informed that the MTO has now made it a priority to design rest areas with the intention of year-round operation, including heated washroom facilities.

This would seem to be an about-face that the Northern Ontario tourism community, business operators and residents have longed for.

We Northerners love this land, and we are proud and happy to share with visitors from far and wide what we get to enjoy at our doorstep. Northern business owners deserve the same opportunities, support, and prosperity as operators elsewhere in the province.

As always, I invite you to contact my office about these issues or any other provincial matters. You can reach my constituency office by email at [email protected] or call Toll-free 1-800-831-1899.

Michael Mantha

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*