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Muskoka remains resilient following bout with Mother Nature

Muskoka has tried to remain buoyant despite devastating floods in Bracebridge and Huntsville.

In the wake of the flooding, officials were worried sun worshippers and outdoor enthusiasts looking to get out of the city would turn to other parts of the province to spend their time off.

“If anyone is thinking we’re not ready for visitors, we definitely are,” says Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith.

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The area has had a slow start to the summer tourism season, beginning with flooding from late April to mid-May. The rest of May and June didn’t have the greatest forecast, either, and the impact of the weather was quickly felt in a region that thrives off tourism dollars, primarily during the spring and summer months.

READ MORE: The worst of the Muskoka floods is over, but residents still grapple with the aftermath

“A bit of a tough start. Certainly in the spring with the flood ⁠— that sent out a message that it was a trouble spot, and then on top of that we had a lot of bad weather, but once we got to July the weather has been absolutely fantastic,” says Smith, who adds that the population of his town of 16,000 usually triples during the summer.

Some businesses along Highway 11, the route that leads north, are reporting a dip in business, attributed to not just Muskoka’s springtime misfortune but also a rise in gas prices, which takes a toll on disposable incomes.

“The highway really is our barometer on how my business is going to be for the day,” explains Dave Pinder, who owns Captains Grill, a chip truck outside Orillia.

Pinder has been in business for four years and says fewer people appear to be making the trek north.

“You can tell by the highway — it’s quiet,” he added. “Mondays you could walk across the highway — not that I would recommend it, but you can walk across the highway. It’s dead.”

Do Muskoka Clothing, a clothing line based in Gravenhurst that travels across Muskoka and sells inventory at events and sidewalk sales, is also reporting losses of nearly 75 to 80 per cent this year.

READ MORE: Crews battle massive fire at Muskoka Timber Mills in Bracebridge

“Every year for the past three to five years, every event has done really well for us and this year, for some reason, is an exception,” says owner Stefan Ottenbrite. “We go to the events and festivals and for three weekends since April we’ve had good successful sales.”

Ottenbrite admits Mother Nature hasn’t been on Muskoka’s side but says there appears to be a bigger issue with businesses’ ability to attract new employees to the area.

“We’re in this together and we have to stick together and really drive tourism home.”

The owner of Muskoka RV on Highway 11 says he has to contract out work because it’s nearly impossible to get staff to relocate. For the most part, it’s just the owner and his wife on hand.

Joe Donoghue, who also rents property to seven businesses along Highway 11, says lower wages in the area aren’t a significant issue given the lower cost of living compared to the city, but employers still struggle to hire staff.

“All of them struggle with finding good quality people and the longevity of people to join them as well, so sometimes what will happen is they go through a process where they train them and then next thing you know, they leave and they’re right back to square one again,” says Donoghue.

It’s an issue politicians have been working to address. They’d like to see Muskoka become a four-season destination as well as bump up population numbers in Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville.

READ MORE: How to save for your summer vacation and avoid debt

“Sometimes it’s the allure of kind of bright lights and big city that pull people away,” says Smith. “At the same time, we see new people come into this community every day and many of them with an entrepreneurial spirit that want to be in an environment like this and recognize that (Bracebridge) is a great town to kind of follow their dreams.”

Smith says his town is always looking at ways to attract not just tourists but entrepreneurs who want the Muskoka lifestyle, the nature, tight-knit communities and beautiful waterways.

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