No sooner had the Prime Minister's motorcade turned onto Highway 60 on its way out of town, leaving in its dust news that the sprawling Deerhurst Resort here would host the G8 summit in 2010, than the rumour mill got cranking.
There is talk that the three-day event will bring screaming fighter jets to the skies, a town-wide security lockdown, and runs on the supermarkets. Cottage rental rates will quadruple. Youthful indiscretions will be exposed by invasive background checks. Heads of state will arrive by water planes on Peninsula Lake.
Huntsville, that sleepy playground for the privileged in the heart of Muskoka cottage country, is in a tizzy.
"Everyone who comes in is talking about it," said Wayne Baker, the 54-year-old owner of the Barber Shop on Main Street. "People around here have never seen anything of this magnitude."
Most of the 18,500 residents are proud that their tiny town on the edge of the Canadian Shield won over federal officials, who spent months scouring the country for a venue with the traits befitting the modern G8 - idyllic, secluded, and easy to secure. They also have high hopes that the event will affix Muskoka - already the land of $2-million summer homes and $5-million egos - firmly to the global map.
But the ordinary affluent weekenders who give Huntsville its seasonal crowds and soaring real-estate prices, and the year-rounders who greet their arrival with layered gratitude and tolerance, are responding with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
"It'll be so exciting, even the protesters," said Sandra Rae, a retiree from Mississauga who used to run a resort with her husband on Oxtongue Lake. "A bear walking through the woods is the most exciting thing we usually see around here."
"People think economically it will be a positive thing," said Anne Smith, 57, owner of the Bookcase bookstore in downtown Huntsville, on a strip no longer than a kilometre.
Not all business owners are anticipating a windfall, though. Tom Walsh, whose Huntsville Marine and Recreation sits on Highway 60 a few kilometres from the Deerhurst Resort, fears security measures on the highway and in the surrounding lakes will hamper his business. "I think it will be a wash for us," said Mr. Walsh, who rents up to 20 boats daily for as much as $300 apiece. "The question for us is where [government security is]going to restrict movement."
And some are planning to grab the kids, close the shutters, and batten down the hatches. "We're looking at high security [in the area]" said Geordie Heath, 30, a paramedic with three small children. "It's not something the kids need to be exposed to. It's more of a burden than anything."
THE PROTEST FACTOR
Images of thousands of protesters clashing with police officers in riot gear at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, where 400 people were arrested and 300 police officers were injured, are fuelling anxiety in Huntsville. That same year, police shot and killed a protester at the G8 summit in the Italian port city of Genoa.
"It's not the meeting that's a concern," said Alex Kudryk, 57, a retired OPP officer who secured Huntsville for triathlons and other athletic events. "It's the people who follow it around and its reputation for violence that are a concern."
While violence has been virtually absent at the G8 since 2002 due to enhanced security and the isolation of the conference venues, the concern is still valid.
"You have interest groups from all over descending on your community, scoping it out, a year or two in advance," says Gillian Brown-Dettmer, an auditor at the Huntsville Comfort Inn, who, as the former marketing director for an association of exclusive golf courses, witnessed preparations for the 2005 G8 at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland.
"It's going to be a great opportunity for this community, but the people have no idea what's coming."
Huntsville Mayor Claude Doughty said in an interview that he has not been briefed by the federal government on security, noting that a date has not even been set for the summit. At the same time, he acknowledged hearing that federal officials are reticent to limit air travel over Toronto and said scuttlebutt about a two-km lockdown around Deerhurst "makes sense."
"There won't be any rocket launchers on Fairy Lake," said Mr. Doughty, who lives on the lake that abuts Huntsville and is lobbying for a June summit to offset the high tourist season in July and August.
There are also worries about whether infrastructure, from roads to hospitals to jails, can handle the 5,000 journalists, several thousand protesters, and tens of thousands of political and security aides that are standard G8 baggage. There are plans to upgrade roads and hospital facilities, and discussions are under way to add bus and train service to reduce traffic congestion.
Conference boosters have attempted to assuage the angst by noting that Huntsville comfortably absorbs five times its population during the summer months and routinely hosts large athletic events. Mr. Doughty noted the town is home to the annual Canadian Pond Hockey Championships and is holding an Ironman competition in September that is expected to draw 1,500 athletes. "It's not an equal comparison, but those things demonstrate our ability to handle large-scale events," Mr. Doughty said.
CAPITALIZING ON G8
History suggests the economic impact of the conference will be significant. The 2002 conference reportedly pumped some $300-million into Kananaskis, Alta. It came with a price, however. Security reportedly cost taxpayers in excess of $200-million.
One industry speculating about a financial boon from the conference is real estate. Agents are speculating that upscale cottages that rent for between $5,000 and $10,000 a week could fetch as much as $25,000. Several brokers in town reported fielding inquiries from cottage owners looking to capitalize by renting their properties to deep-pocketed dignitaries.
Sheila Givens, whose Cottages on the Web specializes in private rentals, got her first of several calls within hours of news breaking about the summit. One caller, an owner of a five-bedroom waterfront cottage on Bella Lake that Ms. Givens estimated would normally rent for between $5,000 and $6,000 a week, was seeking $10,000 the week of the summit.
"It's going to wake up the world to Muskoka," Ms. Givens said. "There is going to be increased demand from there on, I would think."
Sue Burke, a sales agent with Royal LePage Lakes of Muskoka, said she heard from the owner of an opulent cottage on Lake of Bays who does not rent and is contemplating asking for $25,000.
"The people who own those places don't need the money that badly, so if they're going to rent they want to make it worth their while," Ms. Burke said. "We're all just speculating right now."
Deerhurst boasts accommodations for 1,000 people in 400 rooms and suites, many of which are privately owned or blocked by timeshares. Rates for suites overlooking Peninsula Lake can exceed $650 a night.
"I would really hope that Deerhurst would give us some sort of alternative," if the summit forces them out, said Erin Metcalf, 30, whose family has had a timeshare during the first week of July for 19 years. "Otherwise it's just a lottery of who loses out."
Deerhurst spokeswoman Anne White (no relation to the bookstore owner) said it's too soon for such conversations to take place. "Obviously that's something that has to be addressed once the government of Canada confirms the dates," Ms. White said.
Simon Bevan, president of the Huntsville-Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce, believes the summit will "put Muskoka on the map." But such optimism has drawn skepticism from some residents.
"Everybody is on the bandwagon," said Harry Wahl, 74, who questioned the long-term benefits of the event in a recent letter to the editor of The Huntsville Forester. In it, he challenged readers to recall the locations of the last four G8 Summits. The answer: Heiligendamm, Germany (2007); Strelna, Russia (2006); Auchterarder, Scotland, (2005), and, in the U.S., Sea Island, Ga. (2004). "The focus will not be on Muskoka," Mr. Wahl said. "The focus will be on the political leaders and the activists. I think we will lose out in the end."
Others, like John Hertell, 67, who makes his living selling hot dogs and pop outside the town hall, are taking a wait-and-see approach.
"They say there's going to be a lot of economic spinoff but I don't know," Mr. Hertell said, then paused. "Unless I have Obama burgers or something like that."
A private, 3,000-foot executive airstrip located on the Deerhurst Resort property. It can accommodate small aircraft (up to a Dash 7), float planes and helicopters.
Located 45 kilometres away in Gravenhurst. The airport has one 6,000-foot asphalt runway and a secondary, smaller grass runway.
Sources: www.deerhurstresort, http://www.muskokaairport.com
In his announcement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper waxed poetic about the region's "uniquely Canadian beauty," saying it would be an ideal place for the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Russia to meet, as they did this week in Hokkaido, Japan. But Deerhurst Resort also possesses qualities similar to every summit location since the last hosted by Canada in 2002 in Kananaskis, Alta., which set the standard for post-9/11 Group of Eight confabs.
Bound by water to the east and south, the 316-hectare resort is only accessible by two main roads, simplifying security. Its private airstrip and proximity to Muskoka Airport may also preclude restricting airspace around Toronto, 225 kilometres away.
In Kananaskis, where the government imposed a 500-km-radius no-fly zone over the village and closed the only road into town, most protesters did not even bother trying to scale the 2,600-metre jagged peaks engulfing the leaders. They instead resorted to venting their subdued rage 50 km away in Calgary, where shop owners had boarded up their stores in preparation for violent demonstrations that never materialized. The number of demonstrators reportedly peaked at 3,000 - about a fifth of what protest organizers had projected.
At the meeting in Kananaskis, just 10 months after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, CF-18 fighters and ground-to-air missiles were reportedly at the ready to respond to violators of the restricted airspace. Roughly 4,500 police officers and 6,000 soldiers were deployed to protect the leaders and secure a 25-km perimeter around the mountain village.
On the Japanese island of Hokkaido, where the G8 just wrapped up, police outnumbered protesters. The largest rally consisted of 3,000 demonstrators and occurred in a city an hour north of the lakeside summit site.
According to the National Police Agency, Japan mobilized 21,000 police officers and spent about $280-million to essentially lock down a portion of the island. Armed cruisers were stationed offshore.