The Waterfront Project Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee met for the first time on Wednesday (Sept 11).
The Committee made up of three citizens, Bob Clarence, Herb Schmid and Taylor White, and Councilor Jami Smith, is chaired by Mayor Luke Charbonneau. The Committee was struck to review all input over concerns regarding the Port Elgin Main Beach proposed revitalization project and make recommendations that will make up a report to eventually be sent to Council for consideration.
Chair Charbonneau began the first meeting by explaining the purpose of the Committee that was struck.
“The Committee is a concept that I had considered after we got into discussions about this project, as it has unfolded differently than other high-profile projects and is of great concern to the public.”
He pointed out that, in the past there have been issues that the public has had a lot of interest in such as the sewer project north of the Saugeen River, the deep geologic repository (DGR) in which the town is no longer involved and another splash pad in Port Elgin.
“In all of these instances, we received a considerable amount of public feedback,” he said. “Council took all that feedback, distilled it and made decisions. In every one of those cases, the feedback was pretty uniform in nature in that it was generally and consistently, negative. To be blunt, 90 per cent of the feedback received in those projects was in opposition to the projects. It was also clear what those folks were trying to tell us on those issues.”
“In this case however,” said Chair Charbonneau, “we are receiving the whole gamut of responses. There are those who are saying they are in support, with concerns, and those who are strongly opposed. We are receiving a whole range of information making it more complicated for Council to distill that information because it is a much broader range of feedback. So, that’s why, with this Committee, I felt and Council agreed, that it would be helpful to take in that huge amount of public feedback, review it as members of the public and of Council through a committee and get a sense of it. Then, for Council, identify the broad themes in the feedback and lay out for Council, in a clear report, what Council has heard. That will give Council an opportunity to say “… we’ve had this public process of feedback and it is distilled for us and here are the main themes and major concerns that have been identified, so what are the answers to these concerns. Are there answers or not? I hope this will help clarify the process.”
The Chambers were filled with residents who had raised concerns at the recent Council meeting. Since the public is not invited to voice concerns at an Ad Hoc meeting, some in the Chambers bore placards bearing questions.
Chair Charbonneau began the round-the-table discussion saying that a broad theme he has been hearing was around the scale and mass of the structures, their height and whether or not the mass of the project was appropriate and how it would impact the sight-lines for neighbouring property owners and visitors to the beach.
Committee member, Bob Clarence, agreed saying that he also heard concerns about the size and height. “There is also a lot of misconception that there will be paving of the beach. What is the plan for hardscaping and what about drainage?
Taylor White also questioned sustainability and traffic impacts. “I, too, have heard that the scale is too large.” She suggested that perhaps a 3D model would better represent the project.
As discussions continued, more concerns came to light ranging from municipality liability, practicality of a year-round facility, parking concerns, traffic flow, noise and light levels, loss of the flea market, re-installation of a ‘train’, retail space, boater parking access, among many others. In the end, there were some 30 concerns raised which were able to be consolidated under general headings that are not yet fnalized.
Clarence pointed out that, as a boater, he had traveled to many marinas and that Port Elgin had gained the reputation of a ‘no-go-to’ harbour. “There are no amenities that boaters need … things like a laundry facility that is in most marinas, a ‘store’ or someplace to buy supplies. We had meetings 10 years ago and formed the Waterfront Master Plan. People asked for things then. They asked for some sort of variety store in the beach area for small items for both neighbours and boaters because there is nothing here.”
Councilor Jami Smith said that the public-private partnership is a real benefit. “We need to document procedural compliance and the public consultation process.”
Committee member Herb Schmid raised the point that there was a lack of public trust in the process. “People are saying this is a deal that is already made.”
Town CAO David Smith said that Request for Proposal (RFP) was followed and was compliant. “We are comfortable that it has been followed appropriately. The proposal is in direct alignment with the Waterfront Master Plan and four previous members of the Waterfront Advisory Committee at the public meeting said that the RFP matched the Plan.”
He went on to say that the Waterfront Master Plan had, in fact, recommended commercial development at the Port Elgin Main Beach but agreed that the scope and scale of the current proposed plan is something that is concerning. He pointed out that, in the RFP, it was set out that if the proponent did not use the existing ‘train station building’, then a new build could be closer to the water’s edge.
“The beach is zoned commercial,” he added, “so, if the town wanted to build a three-story building there, it could. Not that it would even be considered,” he quickly added. “The capital investment here is $5 to $10Million which is money the municipality does not have. The waterfront is a jewel and if we can get people there year-round, then that’s a good thing. I do however, have empathy for the people who live there.”
“Public consultation has been extensive and has continued on from 10 years ago with the Waterfront Master Plan. There are no answers yet, but there will be,” said Smith. “There is always skepticism with government and, if we (staff) were doing something untoward, we would not be in the positions we are.”
According to Smith the footprint is now at 23,800, equal to that of the existing mini-putt golf area, but admitted that could change dependent on the ‘built form’ of the project that is currently two stories.
Chair Charbonneau went back to the parking issue asking what was the situation for boaters. Smith said that it is an issue and the proponent, Pier Donnini was working on it. The Chair also asked about traffic flow and the impact that increased traffic might have. Smith said that staff have been working with an engineering company and that Harbor Street is part of the Waterfront Master Plan and the concept of a grand entrance to the beach is actively being reviewed by staff and may take an investment over time.
When it was the proponent’s turn to answer questions, Donnini said that, from the Waterfront Master Plan, it was clear that the community wants a licensed establishment at the beach. “We have ensured that we do not want a university ‘March break’ type of thing and it will be reasonable with an 11:00 or 12:00 p.m. closing.”
For those special occasion events, such as weddings, at the proposed Event Hall/Conference centre, it was suggested by Clarence that the North Harbour might accommodate overflow traffic using the proposed train to shuttle people. “That area parking should be expanded anyway.”
Charbonneau asked about the viability of a year-round facility. “The reason is, if this thing goes south, what does the taxpayer have to bear? The public would like to hear more detail or assurances of how it can be successful and how we are protected if things do not work out.”
CAO Smith said that it was an issue being raised with the town’s ‘commercial’ lawyer. “If the project is not successful, the town will be the owner of a $10Million asset on the beach. When it comes to economic viability, we do not want middle-of-the-road success. We want Mr. Donnini to be very successful.”
Donnini said that 12 months is crucial and that “timing is everything and the right timing is now.” He went on to say that his current business, the Queen’s Bar & Grill in downtown Port Elgin, has seen revenue grow “three-fold” matching the growth of the community. “Contrary to popular belief, the doors do not close in this town on Labour Day and I do not think the beach will be any different. We will be providing what is needed and once it’s built, it’s a low risk for the municipality.”
When it came to the question of the Flea Market, Donnini said that he would like to see upgraded quality. “Those in the market are ‘traveling’ businesses and what they offer and pay as rent should reflect that and the market we are planning will be for the benefit of non-profits. It will be smaller but still substantial.”
The HarborLite Restaurant was also raised as a concern as it is considered a valuable asset. Donnini said that the owner will have an important decision to make. “Joan’s concern will be how to handle the extra business volume that will happen. The restaurant has a lot of history and is a great little place. She will have to make a decision however on how to expand her season.
When Chair Charbonneau asked what the impact on other local businesses may be, the CAO said that he did not believe businesses uptown will be impacted. Donnini concurred saying that “Business breeds business. I spoke with my competitor uptown and he thinks it is fantastic.”
Committee member Taylor White asked what the expected time frame is and the CAO said that the RFP called for development by next summer but that studies still need to happen, but the project should go ahead as soon as possible as long as “due diligence is done”.
Chair Charbonneau said that “We heard from the public to slow down. What is an appropriate length of time as it is a major concern?”
He also said that it would be “… essential for Council to see what final plans look like before it approves anything. “We expect all the issues presented will be formulated into a draft report and we want to take enough time to get a good report from this Committee for Council.
The draft will come to council on September 23rd but “there will be no decision made then,” said Charbonneau. No date for the next Ad Hoc meeting was set.