Attendance indicative of interest in proposed beach development

Approximately 300 people crowded into Rotary Hall at the Plex in Port Elgin on Tuesday (Sept. 3rd) for a public meeting about a proposed Beach revitalization project and what was to be a two-hour meeting, turned into almost four.

Mayor Luke Charbonneau put it succinctly when he said that “… the attendance indicates how important an issue the proposed project is to the community and with 39 speakers signing up to speak.”  Some speakers supported the proposal, others did not. 

The project that is being proposed for Port Elgin Main Beach, would see a restaurant-lounge, conference centre, ice rink, ‘theatre’, tower for sunset viewing and more with the footprint to include the area of the existing ‘Train Station’ building, mini-putt golf and flea market.

Proposed by Port Elgin Queen’s Bar & Grill owner, Pier Donnini, along with partners, Kevin Carter, Michael Bolton, Dan Murawsky, Rob Fawcett and Randy Bird, the project would be a public-private enterprise.

CAO, David Smith, said that development ideas for the beach started decades ago and the Waterfront Master Plan (WMP) of 2013-14 was “… an impressive robust plan where 800 residents and stakeholders were involved over three years.  The WMP recommended that there should be business and commercial opportunities along with four-season, year-round food and beverage.”  In addition, a Corporate Strategic Plan was approved by Council in 2016 and “… this proposal checks all the boxes in that Plan.”

According to the CAO, “… significant efforts had been made with the former tenants at the Train Station such as an option for the Town to buy the property and lease it back to the tenants or to allow the tenants to try to sell the business.”

When the ‘train and train station’ agreement with the tenants did not come to fruition, Smith specified that a Request for Proposal (RFP) for redevelopment of the beach area was advertised in November 2018, along with public consultation.

Regarding the proposed 50 year lease for a new development, that many have questioned, Smith said that the former tenant had a five-year investment for an original five-year lease.  “However, that lease went out to a 30-year lease but still with a five-year investment and we, the town, did not see the benefit of that.  The town would be better served with a 50-year lease for a 50-year investment instead of a five-year one that keeps coming back for renewal.  An extended lease also motivates the proponent to keep investing in the property and there is more responsibility.  It’s a big investment.  The town has the option to end the least if, after 25 or 30 years, the community decides there should be something different.”

He added that operating costs would be minimal, with the town maintaining the parking lot but others such as rink maintenance, wages, services and others would be the responsibility of the developers.  “This is what a public-private partnership is about.  Both sides bring things to the table and figure out where the commonality is.”

Smith also said, “It’s not a done deal.  Staff will make a recommendation to Council after we continue to work through some issues.”  In the meantime, work on Harbour Street has been put on pause until a decision has been made and to “… maximize the alignment with the proposal for good traffic flow and parking.  The project will be both pedestrian and cycling friendly.”

Although the CAO said that a Town survey on the proposed development saw more than 1,500 respondents reply, many in the audience questioned the focus of the survey questions.  Smith said that the age distribution of respondents was 44 percent under 40; 33 per cent 40 – 59 and 23 percent at 60+ with 75 per cent wanting more ‘towel space, 65 per cent wanting more parking and 40 per cent wanting more programming.  

“Our next steps are to continue the consultation process, firm up the Waterfront proposal, get more detailed rendered drawings, complete an engineering study and have our lawyers look at the lease before taking it to Council for approval,” said Smith.

When it came Donnini’s turn to speak to the crowd, he brought up the activities that had taken place at the beach during the 1950s.  “In the past there was all kinds of commercial activities and there is not reason we can’t change it back.  We have heard from people that ‘there is nothing to do at the beach’ and destinations are very important.”

When asked about an ‘event hall’, Donnini said that, at one time, there had been one at the beach and that it was “… not a radical idea to create a gathering space on the waterfront.  There are two large employers that are hungry for event space and who have gone outside the community simply because we do not have the infrastructure and it would be nice to keep the business in town.  Service Clubs and seniors events would be at no cost for use of the hall.”

The partners would also like to see an improved ‘boaters’ store’.  “The boaters need more services and items available that are readily available in other marinas.  There should also be bicycle rentals.”

“We are still asking the public what it should look like … we are not going to rush it but we will do it as quickly as possible so that the public can use it,” added Donnini.  We are in an era of tightening budgets and municipalities are going to have to fend for themselves but this process will be managed properly.”

He said that the investment group is working to avoid turning the area into a ‘Wasaga’ or ‘Sauble’ type of destination.  “These are proposals and nothing is etched in stone and the design is not final.

When asked about a ‘train’, given that the once popular tourist attraction steam train at the beach is now gone, Donnini said that the new train would be electric, not require tracks and would also be available for various events.  He went on to say that, “We will also provide administrative space for the town along with additional washrooms for the public.”

He was also asked about the rumour that a casino license was going to be applied for.  Donnini laughingly said that the only gambling license applied for would be for the return of the historic ‘cake wheel’.  The CAO also confirmed that there would be no ‘gambling casino’ at the beach.

Following Donnini’s presentation, it was time for questions …