Residents and visitors filed into the Rotary Hall at the Plex in Port Elgin September 3 as everyone prepared for a public meeting concerning the waterfront revitalization project.

Hub Staff

A crowd of over 250 gathered in the Rotary Hall September 3 to hear presentations and views on the waterfront revitalization project currently before Saugeen Shores Council.

Attendees sat, stood and spilled out into the hallway as the meeting got underway Tuesday evening with members of Saugeen Shores Council, Town staff and project partners present.

Mayor Luke Charbonneau got things started by welcoming everyone and said attendance was reflective of how important of a project it is. Charbonneau assured audience members, "Council wants to hear your views, whatever they are."

Following a presentation by Town CAO David Smith and project spokesperson Pier Donnini, 40 people were lined up to have their say and were limited to three minutes apiece. Charbonneau said that additional comments can be added to the public record by emailing or

See: Village square proposed for the Port Elgin Main Beach

Town CAO David Smith started by saying that the current proposal aligns with the Town's strategies, namely the Waterfront Master Plan (WMP) and the Corporate Strategic Plan (CSP). He reminded attendees that the WMP is a council approved document that was the result of a volunteer committee and citizen feedback that took place over a three year period. Smith said that while wider commercialization isn't appropriate for other parts of Saugeen Shores' waterfront, the current project is suitable for the Port Elgin Main Beach zone.

Smith brought attention to branding and economical development outlined in the WMP and the fact that it recommends business and commercial opportunities as well as four season retail, food and beverage. He said the proposal speaks directly to the recommendation of private partnerships "as a viable means to build and fund development projects worthy of our higher use and tourist waterfront park areas" and said the Plan is specific about improving existing and future buildings.

The Corporate Strategic Plan, in which Smith said over 1,000 people participated, speaks to building on the waterfront capital investment.

Smith said the project is "progressing well" and hits on several touch points including adding towel space, creating more efficient parking, as well as increasing accessibility and bicycle and pedestrian access.

Project spokesperson Pier Donnini began with a number, 13,715, which was the population of Saugeen Shores recorded in the 2016 census. Donnini said that number is important because it represents the number of "property owners" of Port Elgin's waterfront.

"We're not going to hit 13,715 people... but we need to hit as many as we can and I believe our proposal does exactly that," he said.

Attendees were taken on a trip down memory lane as Donnini shared photographs of the Port Elgin Main Beach, and activity of the 1950s, and said it is a reminder of "days gone by" and served as an example of what the beach can be with large structures and commercial activity. "Imagine a town square on our water's edge, a place to gather, a place to meet, a place to celebrate," he said.

Donnini said the community "took a pause" in its interest in the waterfront and that the proposed project is changing the focus back and will give people a reason to be at the beach without being on the beach. He talked about creating a destination "so that people can have experiences, and that counts for people that live in this town."

Donnini listed the project partners. Dan Murawsky he said shared a similar vision for the Port Elgin waterfront. Kevin Carter is a fellow Rotarian and "organizer." Randy Bird is someone Donnini called a "classic entrepreneur" and said he understands risk, investment and trains. Michael Bolton was characterized as reliable and trustworthy, someone with perspective. And Rob Fawcett, Donnini said, has overcome many challenges, is fearless, and "believes in things to the pit of his heart."

One thing Donnini said the partners all had in common is that they are all permanent residents of Saugeen Shores and that the project is "conceived locally and executed locally."

"If money was the only thing we cared about, I would have proposed a bar," he said, and added that instead the choice was made to create a public space with private money that everybody could enjoy, using the WMP as the guiding document.

Donnini went through a check list: create and maintain high purpose, multi purpose attraction; improve the level of visitor services operations within the waterfront area; improve pedestrian and vehicle access and circulation systems; enhance the quality of life for Saugeen Shores residents and visitors through waterfront development; create drop off areas for harbour parking and boaters.

He said concerns had been expressed to him that Saugeen Shores would become another Sauble Beach or Wasaga Beach but said that those were examples of unplanned municipal activity and assured those in attendance that this was the opposite of that and that the planning was happening in tandem with the municipality "every step of the way."

Donnini also said that the 50 year lease supports the project's viability. "The thing has to work, it can't go out of business," he said, and added that viability is how the community gets their money out of it and is a way to avoid taxpayer liability.

He said the proposal was a work in progress, that nothing was etched in stone, and outlined aspects of the project including the Whitefish Grill restaurant, an ice rink that would double as volleyball courts during the summer, an event hall, a beach/boater store, retail space, a viewing tower and a kids' zone. Donnini offered a vision of family skates, a community gathering space, seniors and service club events, an extended market with perhaps a Saturday morning market and/or expanded marketplace activities, and rainy day activities for children. He suggested a public art space giving artist organizations and drama clubs opportunities to showcase and perform, and expanded pavilion programming with additional musical genres and a more robust schedule.

Donnini said a train that is currently being considered is an electric one that can run on any surface and that has a maintenance level that is "dramatically better than what we have had in the past." He suggested fundraisers, a haunted train ride, and a children's themed Christmas ride as possible uses.

Speakers varied in focus and opinion with the majority speaking in favour of the proposed project. Some who had prepared a speech spoke off the cuff as their points had either been made by previous speakers or their concerns had been quelled by the evening's presenters.

Wayne McGrath suggested that the concept, in part, contradicts the WMP bringing attention to a clause that suggests annual surveys be conducted asking stakeholders (residents and visitors) what they want at the waterfront.

Teresa Rowland suggested that more flexibility of space was needed, that the size, scope and height of the proposed structure was too large for the area, and that it was "one large commercial entity" that would overwhelm and "block the natural aesthetic flow" of the beach.

Rob Wagner said he has experience in commercial lending and said that he had questions and concerns about short and long term viability.

Brenda Wagner expressed environmental impact concerns, suggested that the Port Elgin Main Beach is "the most expensive real estate" in Saugeen Shores and wondered what guidelines are in place to protect an unobstructed sight line, calling the skyline and beach the "main event."

Neil Aitchison suggested that the multi structure proposal was contrary to the "warm and fuzzy" feeling conveyed when the Town uses words like "revitalization" and gave a nod to recent park upgrades such as the park on Stevens Street and bicycle and walking trails. He also questioned the logistics of maintaining the beach during the winter months to support year round amenities.

Project partner Rob Fawcett said he moved to Saugeen Shores for sports and that to him Saugeen Shores was a thriving social hub. He said he wants to make the community better and "provide outstanding unique opportunities for the community that I love."

Fawcett offered a vision of kids camps based around the water, bike rentals, a new train, a new market, "the first beautiful wedding and dinner overlooking the most spectacular sunset in the world." He suggested that with the support of Council the property will attract more tourists, add value for locals and make the Port Elgin harbour the "number one stop on the Lake Huron shoreline."

Former WMP Chair Deb Kaufman said that initially she was concerned that the current proposal didn't connect to the WMP but said that the presentations by Donnini and Smith changed that and that the "vast majority of plan recommendations" is being proposed in the new development.

Project partner Randy Bird said the current structures send a bad message to visitors to the Port Elgin Main Beach and suggested that waterfront development was not an option but a long term necessity. Bird reminded those in attendance that members of council were elected "to take care of your town on your behalf, let them do their job and create a better Saugeen Shores."

Former Tourism Coordinator and waterfront committee member Mini Jacques said the current proposal lends itself to the residents who don't go away for the winter and lauded the plan from an accessibility standpoint.

Project partner Dan Murawsky commented on the unattractiveness of the current facilities and said that he and Donnini's vision for Saugeen Shores and the Port Elgin waterfront were similar. He characterized it as a quaint village, "a public space with food and shops and entertainment, the market and the skating rink in the winter, and of course the sunset tower, open to everyone."

Project partner Kevin Carter said "our beach needs help," suggested that someone's got to do it, and said it has to be done right. "We need to make it right and we need to make it work," he said.

Kim Clarke, a tourism professional who has worked across the Bruce Grey Simcoe region called the project "fantastic." She said it was a win win and that "day trippers" are a huge part of the multi billion dollar tourism industry. Clarke said "competition is fierce" and creating more opportunities to spend money and have experiences while on the beach will increase the economic benefit to Saugeen Shores and will help keep people employed, will help keep businesses open and will create more amenities for residents.

Clarke said that tourism in the region is growing, the demographic is changing, and that this was an amazing opportunity to proactively manage visitation as it grows and comes south down the shoreline. "If you can get ahead of the curve and I think that this council is trying to proactively do things in order to manage tourism as more visitors are coming, as our destination grows in popularity and keep people coming back again and again and again."

Mark Kraemer said that attendees were fortunate to sit in the chairs they were sitting in and that "democracy is alive and well in Saugeen Shores." He said the project would enhance the beach and suggested that having a multi million asset "handed to you free" without losing towel space and without using tax dollars, other communities "would beg to have this."

Pumpkinfest Coordinator Joanne Robbins said that "local is key" and she was comfortable with the fact that it's local investors and local businesspeople who have stepped forward with the proposal. Pumpkinfest ran the Port Elgin beach market in 2019 and Robbins said that, based on the quarters counted, on average the market saw 2,500 visitors each week, not including visitors under the age of 12. She said people are looking for things to do and places to eat on the beach.

"We're a beach destination, let's build on that strength and build a nice destination beach experience," she said.

Richard Ferguson suggested that a traffic study and an environment impact study was needed.

Alison Fernandes, Organization of Canadian Nuclear Industries, suggested that the Port Elgin waterfront was "severely under utilized" and said that the project proposal makes tourism a four season endeavour that would add year round amenities for residents.

Former Saugeen Shores Councillor Neil Menage said that visitors, tourists and residents are all saying that the Port Elgin waterfront needs a makeover and that he was in favour of the project.

Former Port Elgin Mayor and Rotary Huron Shore Run organizer John Van Bastelaar said that the community needs to work together in support of tourism, Saugeen Shores' number one business, and that the community needs the amenities this project would offer. Van Bastelaar added that he trusts the Town and the project proponents to follow the rules and the bylaws. "Let's put something together as a community, we need this," he said.

Rick Irwin said he was a strong proponent of the project and he liked the fact that it is being spearheaded by local entities, "replacing time worn shabby structures, more up to date, eye pleasing set of buildings" that doesn't encroach on the existing beach. Irwin said he was pleased that a train was part of the proposal and looked forward to enjoying the opportunity for a nice meal and a drink with his wife "while taking in the sunset."

Downtown business owner Angela Albright expressed concern about the current shortage of employees in Saugeen Shores and wondered where the added work force was going to come from. Albright also wondered how having retail at the beach would impact downtown businesses and suggested that proponents attempt to fill a void rather than taking away from businesses that already exist.

Emma Martin said that, as a millenial, when she first heard about the proposal she was concerned about the large environmental impact and wondered what green measures will be put in place but said that creating a multi purpose space will allow Saugeen Shores to continue to function over time.

Ken Kelly said that Saugeen Shores has two choices, "We can go ahead or we can go back," and suggested that Council was in place because "you trusted them," they have the expertise needed and the project was in good hands.

Pier Donnini

Project spokesperson Pier Donnini spoke about the partners' vision for the Cedar Crescent Village at the Port Elgin Main Beach.

Rob Fawcett

Project partner Rob Fawcett offered words of support for the project September 3 in the Rotary Hall.

Joanne Robbins

Pumpkinfest Coordinator Joanne Robbins said that the beach market brought in an average of 2,500 visitors per week to the Port Elgin Main Beach.

Kim Clarke

Tourism professional Kim Clarke called the project a "win win" and said that tourism was only going to grow in the region.

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