For the first time since their inception in 1970, the Ontario Winter Games are being hosted by Renfrew County and promise to generate millions of dollars in revenue for the local economy and attract up to 6,000 visitors.
“It’s probably the first time they’ve been out of Western and Central Ontario, so it’s the first time in Eastern Ontario,” said Renfrew County Coun. Peter Emon, chair of the local Ontario Winter Games organizing committee.
Considered Ontario’s largest multi-sport event with up to 27 different sports, the games showcase amateur sports and provide development and competitive opportunities for young athletes to prepare them for national and international competitions. Normally held every two years, the games were originally slated for 2022 but fell victim to COVID and were postponed to 2023. Now they’re scheduled for the first two weekends of February: Feb. 2 to 5 and Feb. 9 to 12.
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Hosting the games is an economic boon and spreading the venues across the county means visitors get to experience a good swath of the region, organizers say.
“The majority of sporting events will happen in Renfrew County, but we’re also using two locations in Ottawa — one in Kanata and one in Nepean. We have nine communities in total and 17 different venues spread throughout the region,” said Melissa Marquardt, manager of economic development with Renfrew County.
Based on past events, the games are expected to attract up to 6,000 spectators and generate $5 million to $6 million in revenue.
“When you have 2,400 athletes and competitors, they bring their families with them and we know that there is substantial interest from communities adjoining ours, for example, the Ottawa market and Lanark County area. We already know we’ve penetrated those markets because we’re getting volunteers from those areas,” said Emon.
The bulk of the funding for the games comes from Games Ontario, under the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries.
“We’ve been given $1.4 million to execute the games. Normally it’s one million but because of COVID the province ended up giving us more because costs have increased. We also have a strong sponsorship campaign and sponsorship committee that’s recruiting dollars and in-kind support,” said Marquardt.
Every community that hosts the games is required by the province to create a legacy project that continues beyond the event.
“Our legacy project will be to help fund youth in sports in the future in our communities and get more youth into sports and it will be valid throughout Renfrew County,” said Marquardt.
For most of the athletes, who are between the ages of 12 and 18, it’s their first multi-sport competition and the first time they will be under the care of their coaches and the organizers.
“So for us it’s really important that they have that really great games experience because these are the kids that will ultimately go on to other things like Canada Games and beyond and, at the same time, we want to showcase Renfrew County,” said Cindy Burwell, games manager.
The delay has made organizing the games just a tad more challenging, Burwell admits. Just two weeks from opening, the excitement and tension are mounting.
“The last few weeks have been super stressful and it will be stressful going forward, but it’s been fun and we have a great group of people, a super-motivated group of people. People who just want to make the best games and a great experience for the kids,” said Burwell.
While the games are the signature draw for the county, it’s not the only event happening during the month. Pembroke’s annual Snow Spree runs from Feb. 1 to 5 and Rankin’s Winter Carnival is slated for Feb. 2 to 8.