More public input needed on beach development says reader

To the Editor:

I am 56 years old and a lifelong seasonal resident of the Town of Saugeen Shores/Port¬†Elgin (‚Äúthe Town‚ÄĚ). In my early teens my first job was on the beach. Later during¬†university summer breaks I worked in various jobs in Port Elgin and Southampton. I love¬†the Town and I love the beach.

I was concerned when reading local newspaper reports in the middle of July of a potential significant expansion on the beach with a 50 year
lease to a group of investors in a private/public initiative.

On July 22, 2019 I went to the Town offices and spoke with a person behind the counter indicating I was interested in the project and would like to talk with someone. No one was available and I was asked to write down my name, phone number and email address. I mentioned I wanted to be informed of any meetings or developments as I had a lot of questions and wanted to have input. No one contacted me.

The next day I learned of the meeting the evening of July 22 in which Pier Donnini made his presentation. In media interviews with Mr. Donnini that he stated that building could begin as early as September 2019.

I have been gathering information to understand how we could get to this point in what is clearly a historic and unprecedented expansion of the Town’s most significant asset/resource without notice to, public  consultation with or input from those who live by and use the beach or any interest groups such as the Port Elgin Beachers Association
(‚ÄúThe Beachers‚ÄĚ).

It is also my understanding the project is not consistent with the aims
of Waterfront Plans created after extensive work with the public. (The Plans emphasize public input, focus on amenities of parks, open spaces and plazas, continuous public access to water’s edge, public view corridors, encouraging use of green technologies).

One of the slides in Mr. Donnini’s power point presentation (kindly forwarded to me by Linda White) indicated that the Town and Mr. Donnini were in discussion about a consultation process. I have followed up with Town employees about what process will be in place beyond the survey. I have been advised that it is Mr. Donnini’s plan to meet
with stakeholder groups in the community. I am surprised that was not undertaken months ago as part of the due diligence in putting a proposal together.

For reasons set out below this must be a Town lead and engaged process.
The survey released following Mr. Donnini’s presentation is troubling in both its brevity and arguably skewed nature of some of the questions.

In survey’s limited area for comments I provided the following:
‚Äú‚ĶQuestions 3, 4 and 10 seem to be seeking input from people who don’t even¬†go to the beach. I am not aware of any data that tourism or beach use is¬†declining. Given the unprecedented nature of this project on the Town’s most¬†precious resource people who use the beach need to be able to provide input in¬†a meaningful way‚Ķ ‚Äú

Councillors’ Fiduciary Duties:

The purpose of this letter is to advocate for public meetings and engage in a robust discussion of what is best for the beach and to respond to concerns regarding the extent and nature of the proposed development and 50 year lease being contemplated.

The investors behind this initiative are business people. Their objective, and rightly so is profit. They owe no duties to the taxpayer or community of people who use the beach. As an elected municipal official you have a fiduciary duty to protect the interests of the community and the taxpayers.

You are stewards of¬†the beach ‚Äď the municipality‚Äôs most precious asset. At a minimum your duty¬†must include making informed decisions based on evidence and consultation¬†which includes listening to a wide range of views.

This type of initiative demands that kind of thoughtfulness. What is the benefit of rushing into a unprecedented long term arrangement and miss doing it properly. We have the same goal Рa development that is consistent with and fits the beach space, features the tremendous natural beauty of the waterfront, is sustainable and thrives for generations to come. A robust dialogue is required to get there.

The consequences in rushing could not only result in increased liability to taxpayers but more importantly a burden of unused space and buildings on a most precious piece of land. This is a public matter and the process needs to be directed by the Town. I question many of the power point presentation’s underlying assumptions and projections. This is not about
economic business opportunities for the few but the best use of this public resource for the many.

The best solutions often come from an exchange of ideas and an openness to questions from a variety of viewpoints. A summary of questions and issues raised by the presentation includes but is not limited to the following:

  • What is the scale and/or measurements of the project ‚Äď none are included in the¬†drawings provided. It is not possible to determine the size/footprint of the¬†buildings or their elevation
  • What record do the investors have in this type of a development/construction¬†build;
  • Has the Town researched other public/private ventures in like sized
    municipalities to determine their experiences;
    ¬† –¬† Are other municipalities entering into 50 year lease commitments;
    ¬† –¬† ¬†Is there data to support the need for a banqueting/convention space and what¬†does the research show;
    ¬† –¬† Is there a decline in tourism or use of the beach;
      РIs there a basis for creating a self contained village versus something on a smaller scale such as additional eating options along the lines of the Whitefish Grill proposed;
  • If the project goes ahead as is what are the increased infrastructure costs for¬†taxpayers in terms of roads to accommodate a 300 person banqueting facility ‚Ästcomments have been made that there would be changes to the traffic patterns on¬†Harbour Road and Elgin Street;
  • ¬†The beach in the winter months is often desolate with volatile changes in weather¬†conditions, will there be increased municipal staffing required to ensure snow is¬†shoveled and change rooms are heated and some level of supervision and¬†safety personnel in attendance;
  • My understanding is that local businesses are having a hard time filling job¬†postings;
  • The beach is surrounded by a residential community, large scale and outdoor¬†events (particularly with amplified sound) will be a concern as will traffic patterns¬†when events are finished and people are leaving the beach late at night

The Port Elgin beach has typically attracted families and provided affordable family friendly food and activity options Рhas this been considered in terms of the revenue projections and viability of the village.

Based on its topography and history, Port Elgin has differentiated itself from¬†Wasaga, Sauble Beach and Grand Band. Its sandy beaches are not limitless ‚Äď we¬†are bounded by the shoreline and have a smaller space. But what a space we have. And people come from all over to soak it in ‚Äď the lake, the sand, the¬†sunsets.

What is being proposed in many respects from what I can tell with the
drawings provided is a separation from that space or in large part an obscuring of it.

I want to end my letter with the comments I provided in response to the survey questions on programming.  People have and continue to come to Port Elgin for the sandy beach, the water and its beautiful waterfront. As a result of the ever increasing population there are many programming options elsewhere in the Town for people looking for programs. As an
example neighbours of ours enrolled their grandchildren in a circus camp at the Plex this year.

The beauty of the beach is that kids and adults have the freedom to escape
their busy programmed lives and just be at the beach – si,t swim, boat, splash, relax, read,¬†play bocci. The sounds they hear are of the lake the wind, the rustling in the trees, the¬†grasses , seagulls and the squeals of people enjoying themselves‚Ķ‚ÄĚ.

I look forward to dealing with each of you as we make our way through this process.

Yours truly,

Melanie Reist,  Kitchener,