Residents raise concerns and support for proposed beach development during Open Forum

A special Committee of the Whole meeting was held Monday, December 16th, to discuss the proposed Port Elgin Beach revitalization development.

The meeting held at Rotary Hall in Port Elgin began with the withdrawal from discussion by Councilor Jami Smith due to a perceived pecuniary/conflict of interest and moved into and extended Open Forum where 11 speakers, under a three-minute time limit each, aired their views, concerns and/or support around the development.  Council does not respond to those who speak in Open Forum.

Mayor Luke Charbonneau said that there are lots of people who have different views and there will be things heard that are like and not like.  “It is our expectation that speakers can do so confidently and calmly.  I hope that you will keep expressions of support or disapproval to yourselves and be respectful.”

First speaker, Shane Wickman had two concerns and asked what would happen if the development were to have to declare bankruptcy.  “Would the taxpayer be responsible to cover the costs or would it just sit vacant on the beach?  Also,what would have happen if there were an environmental spill such as sewage into the beach. Would taxpayers have to foot the bill or would it be the investors?

Peter Little, retired businessman, said that it was the “simplistic and natural beauty of the beach that attracts visitors … this development smacks of commercialization.”  He added that change is inevitable but that the proposed development had deviated from the original footprint of what was once the Train Station at the beach.  “Protesters to this development have been painted with a nasty brush,” he said, “but over 4,000 people signed a petition … this is not a minority.”

Wayne McGrath, after whose family the beach McGrath Pavilion was named, has spoken out many times in opposition to the development.  He drew attention to the Waterfront Master Plan that took three years to arrive at.  In the Plan 16 items had been rejected and ignored. Five years of gathering of stakeholder data and fostering community partnerships had never happened.  “The Great Lakes Protection Plan has also been ignored,” he added. “Environmentally sensitive parks has also been ignored.  The historical value of this beach has been ignored. To ask these public citizens to create a plan and ignore it is a travesty.  There has been a bypassing of  “This process has made a farce out of social responsibility.”

While there are many against the proposed development, there are also those who expressed their support.

Kate Brewer, a 33-year-old homeowner, said that she was in support of creating a lifestyle that would be directed to those in her age demographic.  “Surviving on tourism is a thing of the past,” she said.  We need year-round businesses and events in the ‘off’ season and the beach will be enhanced with a restaurant and retail … this is an incredible opportunity.”

The new owner of the previous Edelweiss Motel and renamed the Paradise Inn, Randy Bird, said that a forward thinking Council has to keep up with growth. “Private-public partnerships open doors.”

According to Bird, there was an economic impact study done that said there would be a gross domestic growth locally of over $8Million in the first year, 90+ positions of employment (most to be sourced from college and universities and agencies), a total tax stimulation of $1.3million Federally, $1.7million Provincially and close to $500,000 municipally.  It will also have a positive impact on surrounding property values.”  He went on to say that the project will generate community services “like no other privately owned building in this town.  There is a series of obligated and non-obligated donated services planned for the future.  Council has also done an amazing job on the proposed lease. Let’s make this town stronger through logical, fact-based information and let Council prepare for the onslaught of newcomers to the area, manage this community and listen to the silent majority that supports this.”  Bird is also a partner in the investment group that has proposed the development.

Judy Bird (Randy Bird’s wife) spoke saying that guests at their Inn wanted more activities.  “Food and family fun is a drawing card for our community.  Cottagers, residents and visitors will benefit from this project on the water.”

On the other side of the issue, Peggy Corrigan-Frank raised several concerns including  that the current proposal goes beyond what the community wanted.  “The Waterfront Master Plan of 2014 has been sold to one bidder.  This is a different way of being on the beach that none of us conceived.  It seemed that with the presentation on July 27th, Council was all for it from the ‘get-go’ and the partnership between the Town and the proponents was already in place.”

She went on to quote the Municipal Act saying that “a municipality shall not grant assistance to a private business through lending, leasing or selling property of the municipality below fair market value. The law demands fair value for money taken.  Is $2.50/sq.ft. fair market value for this prime piece of property?  Why would the town want this CCV to compete with its own interests?  This (proposed event hall) will compete with the Rotary Hall, Southampton Town Hall and the Museum who will all lose business to a private group. How will the proponents find staff and housing which is such a problem now?  The lease proposes a “like new condition”.  How will this happen if past practice is any indication – crumbling mortar, broken signs, broken window boxes and second floor accommodation that is very poorly maintained – at the main corner of our town. The Harborlite and Beach Side Cafe are being treated shabbily.  How are their customers going to park and find a way to their restaurants?”

Ratepayer, Christine Mitchell, was in full support of the Cedar Crescent Village (CCV) development.  “I am very impressed with the proposal.” Having driven to the beach and surveyed the derelict train station and mini-putt, she said that the area was in dire need of the project.  “A full-service restaurant is one I am especially excited about … a conference centre and outdoor venue is much needed to re-vamp the entire space.  A ‘kids’ space would save me the drive to take my little cousins to Sauble Beach to enjoy activities as they are looking for a little more action.  Port Elgin is a vibrant and growing community.”  According to Mitchell, at the mayor’s breakfast in 2018, the Mayor spoke about the development and growth in the community.  “He spoke about the proactive and progressive approach that Council is taking to welcome residents and visitors alike. Cedar Crescent Village (CCV) is a vital part of this growth, both culturally and economically for Port Elgin.”

Resident and business owner, Alison Heist, spoke next saying that she lived a block away from the proposed development.  She said that she, too, was impressed with the proposal. “Cedar Crescent is an amazing way to re-purpose the space that has always been used as a commercial space and a partnership between the town and private business.”  She added that CCV is a sustainable way to move forward in revitalizing the waterfront and that, as a taxpayer, it would not cost her anything and, as a business owner, it will attract more people to the area that “… will give some legs to my own business.  I envision this as a European ‘piazza’ or gathering place where families can play, eat and have activities every day.”

Rob Wagner, focused his presentation on the lease itself. He asked how the town calculated the $2.50/sq. ft. rent.  “This is the most valuable public land asset in Saugeen Shores and its exclusive control and use is being turned over to a numbered company for possibly the next 50 years.  There should be independent real estate and financial experts to determine the fair market value of the property being leased. Other criteria include the type and length of the lease, the location of the property, the type of commercial activity being proposed while looking at the net lease value over the next 50 years.”

He questioned why, as in other commercial leases, the value is not being based on total square footage as opposed to the building footprint.  “The proposed formula does not take into account a second floor, volleyball courts and valuable space that will be under the full control of the lessee and will derive revenue for that lessee.  How are activities and scheduling being realistically valued for offset and should this not be done prior to the lease being signed?”  Wagner also questioned the cost to the town for site servicing such as snow removal and asked why realty taxes, development charges and completion penalties were not included in the lease.

Wagner also asked how the security deposit of $150,000 was determined to reflect the risk to the town particularly during the construction phase as it represented only 3.75% of the $7 to $10million cost. He said that a minimum of $10% is more appropriate and shows more the fiscal capability and desire to complete the project. He also asked what background checks had been done by staff to ensure the project could be completed for things such as the source of funds.  He suggested that a provision be added to the lease to include a community design process through the formation of a committee made up of town staff and the public to work with the designer to ensure the best design and to give the public meaningful input in the final design.  “The town is giving up control of one of its prime assets for almost 50 years.  We believe we need to restore and revitalize but lets have a plan we can be proud of.”

Last speaker was Joan Johnston, owner of the Harborlite restaurant for over 30 years and that is located at the harbour. “I know we need something down there (beach) but a lot is to be blamed on the Council and five year leases.  We had a 25 year lease and did fine until the town decided to go to a one, then a three and then a five year lease yet expected us to put money into the property.  Everything we made we put back into the business. We would have put a new restaurant up and I told the town five years ago but not with a five-year lease.  I do not agree with this development being so close to the beach.  How will this affect our customers? How are we going to get our deliveries in?  We get quite a few customers unable to walk, people need to get close to the beach and the building should be further back and I would like less concrete.”