Looking at both sides of the proposed Beach revitalization project

On September 3rd, in the almost four-hour public meeting about the proposed Port Elgin Main Beach development, Cedar Crescent Village, 39 people rose to express either concerns or support for the revitalization project with a three-minute timeline.

The meeting held at Rotary Hall in the Plex in Port Elgin saw approximately 300 people crowd into the room and overflow into the foyer, to either learn more about the project or to voice their feelings toward it.

From the 39 speakers, it was relatively close in number between those who spoke in favour of the project and those who are against it going ahead.  Of the concerns touched on were deviation from the Waterfront Master Plan, the size and scope of the project,loss of parking, environmental concerns, traffic, financial considerations and many more.  The following are only some of the speakers (in order of speaking), who expressed various concerns and/or reasons for support.

Wayne McGrath, a retired music teacher and life-long resident of Port Elgin, was the first speaker to take the mic.  The Main Beach pavilion where entertainment on the beach takes place was named after his father, Emmet McGrath.  McGrath started with a correction to the CAO that there was no mention in the Waterfront Master Plan of “removing the train”. “Council’s senior administration, who are bound by duties under the Municipal Act, such as ensuring policies are implemented, has let us all down because they have catered to and recommended a concept that absolutely contradicts the Waterfront Master Plan.  Under Specific Recommendations from the Plan, it says

“Annual surveys shall be done at the waterfront asking residents and visitors what they want at a waterfront destination and ‘tell us what you think about the waterfront’.  The survey will ascertain the stakeholders’ needs and expectations regarding existing waterfront buildings and their facades; business and opportunities they would like to see.”  

What is the point in doing a three-year plan that is conveniently ignored?  Any beach development should be in the hands of residents and those visitors who are on the beach!  What did the staff not understand about collecting annual data from stakeholders?  They should have had due diligence each year from 2014 to 2019 that would result in a wonderful development plan. It’s a good thing this plan is only at the concept stage.  The Waterfront Plan is the guiding light for the future.  The Village plan should be scrubbed in its present form because Council has no idea what thousands of stakeholders would agree to because they have been ignored and not included. The Waterfront Plan is crystal clear on that point.”

Theresa Rolland, a self-admitted Port Elgin “life(er)”, who has lived on Harbour Street across from the Main Beach for 30 years, said that,  “We need more flexibility of space not less.  I love the new promenade on the beach but as soon as we start adding hard surfaces like that to the beach, we limit flexibility. In the past, when the benches were on the beach, they could simply be moved when there were high water levels.  Now, if we introduce more buildings and hard surfaces, we are limiting the ability to adapt to future needs and especially with the population growing so much.  The size, the scope and the height of this project is too large for the area … it’s one large commercial entity with multi-buildings and a really tall tower on a very small precious piece of real estate that will overwhelm the entire beach and block the natural aesthetic flow of the beach.

It is the beach and sunsets that are our natural ‘calling cards’ drawing people to this community and we need to complement those two drawing cards, not hide them.  If we limit the buildings to one story, we can protect the previous sight lines of the entire waterfront for everyone to enjoy, whether on the beach or driving by.  Residents and visitors are drawn toward the water.  Everyone has an equal voice in this debate and not just those of us lucky enough to live by the beach, but the reality is the beach is surrounding by residential properties and boaters.

People have invested heavily in their properties and they will be completely immersed every single day having to look at, listen to and experience all the activities associated with a huge commercial development, including long hours of amplified noise, a major increase in altered flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, glare from additional night lighting and signage, obliterated sight-lines and all the security risks for people given a late-night liquor licensed venue nearby.  All this will substantially impact the quality of life and property for those living nearby.  Decisions made are forever going to change the landscape of our waterfront.  It deserves all the time necessary to ensure everyone’s voice is heard and all options considered.  Let’s slow things down and do this right.  We all want to see a success story for this property to pass on to future generations.”

Rob Wagner, who has lived in Port Elgin for 60 years and his family is users of the beach, came to the proposed development from an in-depth financial aspect.  “I’ve been a commercial lender for over 35 years with a major bank and have done many major commercial lending deals.  After viewing the project on the website, I have major questions and concerns for aspects of this project, including the short and long-term liability, the proposed economic growth projections provided, the public-private relationship being proposed, the owners’ credibility and experience with this type of project, environmental concerns and, most importantly, the ability of the ownership group to obtain financing from traditional lenders at reasonable terms and conditions and the risk the town is preparing to take on from day one without proper due diligence.

It is critical that the town and the public get more detail, including the background and previous project experience, financial capability, credit history and track record of all the owners involved with this proposal.  In reviewing the names and occupations of the principles, it would appear that there is no or limited experience or qualifications in either building or operating a project of this type, nor does it outline official ambassadors’ names, operators of banquet halls, retail space, children’s play facilities, etc. Financing of restaurants, banquet halls, retail stores, etc. are often viewed by lenders as high risk with very high failure rates.  If considered, there are usually requirements for higher equity levels, collateral, a very strong business plan, including feasibility studies, needs and competitive analysis, a cash flow analysis, multi-year revenue projections, contingency projections, fixed costs, government approvals, etc. to ensure the success of the business and the ability to re-pay the loan and cover cost over-runs in the first years of operation.

Have these documents been completed? If so, are they available for review by the public?  Since this project will be on lease land, owned by the town, that is seasonal and based on weather conditions during winter months, it may add another negative dimension to the land request, an increased burden to the town should it have to step in and take over the project if it is abandoned by the owners anytime during the lease period.  Based on the increased risk profile, a firm offer of financing should be reviewed, received and approved by the town and possibly a letter of credit or other form of collateral should be obtained by the town from the owners prior to signing any long-term commitment to ensure the owners have financing in place.  This project should be put on hold until all the necessary documents are in place and approved by the town to ensure this is a sound, viable operation for the residents of Saugeen Shores now and well into the future.”

Others however, were in full support of the proposed development.

Kim Clarke, a professional in the tourism industry said that has seen first-hand what is happening in places such as Wasaga Beach, Sauble Beach, Tobermory, Blue Mountain and others, and considers the proposed development to be “fantastic”.  She continued on to bring context to the area of tourism.  “In 2015, tourism brought $1.2Billion to the region’s economy.  It is important and keeps many people employed and many of our businesses open year-round and provides benefits to business and residents.  I love this proposal.  People need things to do while they are on the beach.  Coming to the beach is a key driver for tourists who come and spend money.  Day-trippers are a huge part of the tourist industry.  They may buy gas and eat out but can we create more opportunities for them to spend money and more time in our community.  So, we need to create more opportunities for them on the beach to stay, spend money and create employment and keep businesses open … so this is  a win-win.  Tourism is growing in the region and this is an amazing opportunity to proactively manage visitation as it grows down the shoreline.  Competition is fierce and people will go to other destinations and spend their money elsewhere and that will have a negative impact on the community.”

“This is the greatest municipality, in the greatest province, in the greatest country in this world,” started Mark Kraemer, former Mayor of Saugeen Shores.  “Everyone needs to understand how fortunate we are to be sitting in these chairs tonight. You also need to understand that every opportunity that comes along generally demonstrates succinctly democracy is alive and well.  It is fantastic that people have taken time out of their busy lives to come out and say – ‘Pier, we don’t like this and you need to do a better job at what you’re telling us’.  I also love it when people say, ‘I need more activities and another restaurant’.  Whose to say that a restaurant won’t survive on beach?  In the past 12 months, four restaurants have opened and they are all thriving.

I, for one, am not prepared to question the logistics around the investment made by six outstanding business people that I know personally.  If they want to risk their children’s inheritance on something that’s going to make my life more enjoyable, God bless them!  There is not a single solitary venture that these six people have gone into that has failed. Who else can say that and is prepared to put $10Million on the table so that I can have lunch, dinner and possibly breakfast on the beach watching a sunrise or sunset?  There are challenges on the beach but we need to enhance it. We need to make it more user friendly by our visitors, by our boaters and, more importantly, by me, my children and grandchildren.  I am vehemently supporting things like this to make their lives easier.

Ten million dollars … we need a train and they are replacing it   There are no tax dollars in this thing and, yes, it may go down but you know who’s going to lose the $10 million? The six guys that built it!  We are going to have an asset in this town, handed to you free on our property that has residual value.  How do you figure that’s going to be a drain on our tax dollars?  We are not removing towel space, we are not using tax dollars.  Other communities would beg to have this kind of proposal built in their community with not a dime invested by the people in this room!”

Alison Fernandes, Manager of Nuclear Economic Development for Bruce County, Bruce Power and OCNI (Organization of Canadian Nuclear Industries) an organization that represents the nuclear suppliers that are relocating to the area, said that she was in total support of the development.  “With the nuclear industry on a path of growth and advancement and with the refurbishment program about to begin, opportunities will continue for our community until 2064 and beyond.  Growth is inevitable and, quite frankly, a reality.”

She went on to say that there are currently 56 nuclear companies that have moved into the area with more to come and they are not only bringing development, support and growth to the community but are also offering employment to local residents as well as educational opportunities for the youth.

“Through this, there are many families relocating here and we want to retain those individuals who, in turn, keep local businesses thriving for all four seasons.  Retention can happen through development of infrastructure, opportunities for families with places where they can spend quality time together, be active together with children’s programs, a waterfront restaurant, the ability to host non-corporate and corporate events at a desirable waterfront venue. Our beach front area/harbour is a gift but is severely underutilized and will bring visitors to our beach, make our tourism four-season, will be here for our year-round residents and will continue to grow the area we are fortunate to have access to.”

Joanne Robbins, expressed that she was happy that the investors are local people and that the residents should be glad there is a public consultation.  “The beach is the gem of our community and it should get back to its former glory and make us all proud.”  According to Robbins who, for the past year, has headed up Pumpkinfest and the beach Flea Market on Wednesdays, said that she was surprised at the number of people at the market.  “We had an average of 2,500 per Wednesday that went through the market.  If these people wanted to do something on a Wednesday, why wouldn’t they want to on other days of the week.  We are a beach destination so let’s build on that and build a beach experience.”

Several more speakers included partners in the investors’ group Kevin Carter, Dan Murawsky, Randy Bird and Ron Fawcett.

In addition, Neil Menage and Deb Kaufman, members of the Waterfront Master Plan Advisory Committee, said that in prior consultations with all stakeholders they heard that it was unanimous that people wanted a makeover.  “The stakeholders said it (the beach) was downtrodden, it was awful.  The tourists and visitors told us that and residents told us.”

Menage also said that he had worked with Andy Hess, owner of the Train Station to get it going and tried to resolve the situation two years ago.  “It gets very complicated when the public demands that it needs to know everything that is going on, all the details, the financial backgrounds … and it’s just not right. The community is a corporation and we are all citizens of that corporation with a ‘board of directors’ – the Council.  We have staff and legal assistants who can make lease agreements work.  We, the public, do not need to have endless scrutiny on every project.  I am in favour of this project.  The Waterfront Master Plan was a made-in Saugeen Shores success.  Never before has the public been asked to, or been engaged in, such a process.  In the last two years, almost $2Million has been put into the beach by the town.  I have more suggestions that I will give to the Town.”

The last Mayor of Port Elgin prior to amalgamation, John Van Bastelaar said that the beach is in need of some work and the community has to work together to make it a destination.  “There is not distinction on how long anyone has lived here … we have to work together.  This is an opportunity with local business people who are willing to take a risk.  When we see a group that is willing to take an ownership in this town, how can we pass that up?  it’s a great opportunity for us as a community for us to support these people who live here, and that’s important.  They are not big corporations and I think they will do this for the good of this town.  We have to support each other.  What is there now is terrible.  We used to have tennis courts down there, a water treatment plant, a bandshell and now everything has been taken off and nothing has been replaced. It’s time we started making this a destination and this is a community that needs these facilities.”

As part of the Doctor Recruitment Committee, Van Bastelaar said the reason doctors came here was because of amenities, activities, volunteerism and people who work together.  “Like any developer, this group will have to follow the By-laws, follow the rules and put something together and have to support this because we need this.”