CORNWALL, ONT. -- The City of Cornwall and Stormont, Dundads and Glengarry (SDG) Counties teamed up with the Ontario Tourism Innovation Lab to offer a new program looking for the next big tourism idea.

The Spark Program was launched at the beginning of October and is looking for applicants with ideas that could benefit the area.

"It's all about inspiring people to think about tourism in the area in the future," said Kevin Lajoie, tourism officer at the City of Cornwall.

The program is open to anyone from Cornwall and the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry.

"We're inviting anyone—residents, businesses, not-for-profits—to submit their tourism idea. They may have something they've been thinking about for a long time. We want to hear about it," said Lajoie.

"They submit their idea and, after that, a panel will review the submissions and eventually we'll end up with three finalists who will receive a $3000 grant and mentorship from experienced professionals to help take that idea to the next level."

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hampering businesses around the region, Lajoie hopes it can spark new ideas that people can enjoy safely or in a bubble.

"We know this pandemic has changed things and that probably won't go away any time soon. Whether it's things like bike rentals or outdoor experiences, canoeing, kayaking, food tours, things that people can enjoy in a safe way that's really what we are hoping to establish with this," He added.

The Ontario Tourism Innovation Lab is a not for profit group that covers all of Ontario.

The Spark Program has been offered in other regions, with winners starting up new businesses or changing the way their current business operates.

"It's been well received and they usually get ideas and suggestions brought forward that they never expected, so we're confident that we'll have quite a few here and we're confident that we'll get some great ideas that will encourage future travel here to Cornwall," said Lajoie.

Terry Jenkins was one of three winners of the Spark Program held in Chatham-Kent in southwestern Ontario.

She said the mentorship went a long way in helping her business thrive.

"Our mentor was so good at helping us determine which directions to go with the Indigenous tourism," Jenkins said. "We hit the jackpot with our mentor."

Jenkins runs TJ Stables, which uses rare Ojibwe riding horses. She was lined up with a mentor from Indigenous Ontario Tourism.

TJ Stables Ojibway horses

"I thought, 'who the heck are they ever going to put with us to do this mentorship', and right away the Spark Program connected me with Kevin Eshkawkogan, from Indigenous Tourism Ontario. The value and the experience that he had, he's still guiding me," Jenkins said.

"We have gone to Manitoulin with our ponies now; we have connected with other people in the tourism business through Indigenous Tourism. We've also connected locally. It just snowballed and it was just like riding a big wave," Jenkins added.

Karen Rorabeck and her husband opened Rurban Brewing in Cornwall five years ago.

Rorabeck said something like the Spark Program would have helped when they started.

"Obviously, the financial incentive is huge because people don't realize there are start-up costs and sometimes it can take a while before you have any income coming in to offset those costs," Rorabeck said.

She says having a mentor to help guide them through start up would have been huge.

"For us, we had five different levels of government for licensing and not a lot of companies have that involvement, so it would have made a little bit of a difference there," she said. "I hope people make use of it and that they're able to bring some ideas. Sometimes it's just a small idea that will quickly grow into and be well-supported in this community."

Jenkins also noted that even if you don't end up winning, the experience of the application will stay with you.

"Every step of the way is a learning experience for your business. We were successful and there were other applicants that weren't and they still felt like they benefitted from the experience," she said.

"In Cornwall and SD&G Counties, we have some amazing stuff already," said Lajoie. "Whether it's attractions or food and drink establishments, breweries, wineries, outdoor adventure things, we have a lot of great offerings in the area. What we are hoping for with this program is that some people will take advantage of those amenities we already have and improve on them, or expand on them, to offer even more experiences that people can enjoy.

"Like in any business, you might have a great idea but you're not sure initially who to turn to, what you need, what's required. There are questions like is it even possible, are there specific local laws or different rules that you need to follow? We're hoping, by even just submitting the idea, we can begin that discussion and get people thinking what's possible and how we can make it happen."

You can apply any time before Oct. 30 on the Ontario Tourism Innovation Lab website.