The little train on the beach appears to soon become a relic of the past

Saugeen Shores Town Chambers were filled to capacity at Monday night’s Council meeting (June 25/18) as supporters of the Port Elgin Beach train continued their fight to retain the iconic symbol.

Seven speakers participated in the public’s Open Forum session that precedes each Council meeting and expressed their concerns over the Town’s decision to not renew a five-year lease with the owners of the train, Andy and Debbie Hess.

Wayne McGrath

Griffin Versteeg (8) and Lyla Jackson (5) presented their concerns from the eyes of children.  “My ‘poppy’ is 88 and when he visits he wants to ride on the train and my nana has been riding it since she was a kid. My mom even worked at the station.  The train is the most fun at the beach.  I hope this lets you know how important the train is,” said young Versteeg.

Bruce Coghill said that he is “very confused about the way the town is treating Andy and Debbie Hess.  The CAO, David Smith, has created a lease that is zero per cent risk to the town and 100 per cent a risk to Andy and Debbie.  Noone could sign such a lease.”

Coghill pointed out that the Mayor has stated “… more than once that the train was never in jeopardy.  The old lease was five pages that satisfied the tenant (Hess) and the landlord (Town) for 30 years and yet the new lease is 14 pages that satisfies the town 100 per cent and puts Andy and Debbie in an impossible situation.  One one hand, you say you want the train but the lease says you don’t want the train.”

He asked why the Mayor and CAO couldn’t make amendments to make it work and why it has taken so long to  “..get to this point.  I hope you Councilors ran for office so that you could make a difference.  Go back, make it a reasonable lease, without all the pitfalls attached.  I found 14 points that spell disaster for anyone who would sign such a document.  Why has this happened?  Thirty years of stability and three years of turmoil.  Why?  Where is this coming from?  Perhaps, the train station and mini-putt don’t fit into the Master Plan, which I have been told is only a vision that may take years to accomplish or may never happen.”

The issue had been raised by town staff at one stage to move the train to North Shore Park but Coghill pointed out that it could not survive there on its own.  “It would be nice if you (Council) could restore the faith of the town for whom you work on behalf of all citizens.  The train is a major attraction that is known and talked about far and wide and brings tourists to the beach who leave behind their tourist dollars and everyone benefits.”

Joan Johnston, owner of the Harbourlite Restaurant at Port Elgin Harbour, said that “The train is the heart of the beach.  Wherever I travel, people say they come for the train.  Last summer, we had a petition signed by over 4,000 people.  There is little for families on the beach.  You are taking everything off for the children.  What do little ones do?  I love the train.  The children love the train and it is a good asset for the beach.”

Patty Bowman said that the train has not been for sale for 10 years as indicated by some.  She pointed out that the lease makes it impossible to sign.  She also said that,  “Perhaps Council was not aware of the communication between the town administration and the Hess(es).  The Hess(es) do not want to sell, they want to be fair and they are taxpayers.  Councilors use the word transparency in their campaigns so let’s see some honesty, transparency and compassion and repair this situation.  They (Hess) deserve a fair lease and residents deserve a beach directed toward safe fun and a family atmosphere.”

When it came to Committee of the Whole, a delegation by Anthony Melidy resulted in a heated exchange.

“I’m not here to save the train, I’m here to save the beach,” said Melidy.  “It’s people like Andy and Debbie that make us come back.  The people are just as important as the things and that’s the problem.”

Melidy said, upon reading the Town’s Master Plan, “it appears someone wants to turn it into another Sauble Beach”. I realized how integral the train is to our beach and losing it would be a radical change and not in the best interests of the town.”

According to Melidy, Hess met with the Mayor and CAO on Friday (June 22/18), where he was told that an extension of last year’s lease was “off the table”.  “This doesn’t sound like the town wants to keep the train.  The town’s waterfront plan says that the train should be moved to North Shore Park”.  Melidy affronted Council when he questioned their integrity and honesty.  He also raised the question of whether or not a ‘drinking establishment’ was being considered for the beach and, if so, intimated that it would become a ‘party’ environment with excessive drinking and drug usage.

At this point, Councilor Neil Menage rose on a 
‘Point of Order’.  “Our procedural by-law requires that delegations present material in a respectful and temperate manner.  To go off on these tangents and suggest that residents are going to be ‘face down in the water because of drinking on the beach’ (as stated by Melidy) in my opinion, is not respectful.  Neither are the continual references to members of Council and staff lying.”  Menage asked through the Mayor that the delegation stick to the submitted deputation, which the Mayor did.  

Melidy continued agreeing to comply but then accused members of Council and the Mayor of being “deceitful”.  Councilor Menage again rose on a ‘Point of Order’ asking that the delegation stop using those “kinds of references” to Council or the Mayor.  

Mayor Mike Smith insisted that Melidy stick to the delegation.

Melidy however, lashed out saying that he believed Council has been “dishonest”, at which point Councilor Menage rose suddenly saying that “My family does not need to hear this delegation saying that I am dishonest.  I am not dishonest, have never been dishonest and I take exception to this!”

Melidy and those who filled the Chambers in support of the train then left and Council moved on in the agenda.