A little piece of history may be on the chopping block
by Sandy Lindsay

January 11, 2017

Town Council

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One of the most popular and historic icons could become a thing of the past in Port Elgin and all of Saugeen Shores.

The 'little' steam-engine train on Port Elgin beach that has been enjoyed by families for generations may soon disappear.

The train's whistle has been heard for decades as it runs from the beach through North Shore Park and back again, giving tourists a relaxed experience and view of the Park, the Harbour and Lake Huron.  Even though the train is miniature, for many children it is the only opportunity to ride an historic steam-engine operated train and one that sees long line-ups of people to board during the summer months.

The property known as the 'train station' has been leased and operated by Andy Hess and his family for many years, along with the adjacent mini golf course, on a five-year lease basis.

At Monday night's Council meeting (Jan. 9th) however, Community Services brought forward an information report with a recommendation that a one-year lease be entered into. It was also suggested that a Request for Proposal (RFP) move forward in its goal of selecting a new service partner that would be "able to enhance the appearance of the building, provide desired services and reasonably accommodate the train business."

According to the report, "the building and property have aged in appearance and no longer meet the current aesthetics appropriate for the Town's most significant tourist attraction (beach)."

Apparently, town staff received an "unsolicited proposal" late last year (2016) to "repurpose" the Station and surrounding land uses.  The proposal (unknown) according to the report "... has merit but has not been compared to any other proposals and .... would present some risk to achieve for 2017 without significant public consultation".

Staff would like to see a 10-20 year commitment to "achieve the goals envisioned".

Councilor Dave Myette asked if there are property standards for the lessee to maintain, "There should be other avenues we can pursue other than ransoming them with a shortened lease period and that, if they don't do things we want them to do, then their lease won't be renewed.  I am uncomfortable with the concept of doing it that way instead of working collaboratively and finding out the underlying cause of why their property has become in such a state, perhaps they require help from the town or financial help, as opposed to 'if you don't do this you will no longer be in business'.  Also, is the lease transferable if he wants to get out of the lease or what are the conditions to cancel that lease?  I would like to know the causes that are bringing this about."

Deputy Mayor Luke Charbonneau (Chair of the meeting in the Mayor's absence) pointed out that no decision is yet being made on the length of the lease but, as with any property owner, the town has the opportunity to review a lease that is expiring and whether or not it meets the needs of the 'taxpayer' ... and staff are working on a review to bring to Council a lease that would give us the opportunity to have that review in the context of a lot of changes that are about to happen on the Waterfront and that's an appropriate time decide on whether the leaseholders and leases are meeting our needs."

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The issue of the 'little' train is not new.  In 2014, it was part of the Waterfront Master Plan presented to council in December of that year.  At that time, it was recommended by the consultant of the day that "the train would either be re-located or eliminated" but "... part of the track could be retained as a 'memory'."

In that report, it was recommended that "This could be done by leaving the train rails in their current location, provide the history of the Port Elgin Main Beach, the amusement train and station through interpretive signage, and / or hiring a local artist to create a sculpture to commemorate this heritage."

[file photo from 2014 WFM Plan]

Vice Deputy Mayor Diane Huber said that "This is similar to the Plex or Southampton Town Hall and tenants we may see there... we have a new vibe ... we have a new Waterfront Master Plan that will be swooping right through the whole area with a different kind of look and vibe ... I don't see this as anything other than moving forward ... and it makes sense to set things up for opportunities."

Councilor Mike Myatt said that the train station is a piece of history and "I hope that when an RFP comes forward that wording is very careful and that the train station doesn't disappear.  I also hope the RFP talks about the mini golf.  I think we have a responsibility from time to time to look at all agreements.  I'm not sure that five years should be automatic.  It is incumbent to our taxpayers to review our lease agreements.  We have approved $1.4million are looking at a 'gateway' to the beach that will be $500,000 or more.  I think we have listened to the community about reinvesting in the Port Elgin Waterfront and if that includes reviewing lease agreements, then I don't think that's a bad idea.  But retaining the train station at the Port Elgin waterfront is really important and the mini golf course."

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017