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Hub Staff

The Waterfront Project Ad Hoc Advisory Committee met on September 11 in Saugeen Shores Council Chambers to address the concerns and cumulation of community feedback surrounding the Port Elgin Waterfront Development project.

Members of the committee who were present were council representatives Mayor Luke Charbonneau (Committee Chair) and Councillor Jami Smith, municipal staff representative Tracey Edwards (Committee Secretary) and citizens Herb Schmid, Bob Clarence, and Taylor White. Saugeen Shores CAO David Smith and project proponent Pier Donnini were also in attendance.

Mayor Charbonneau began by recognizing the complexity of the project at hand due and the vast range in community responses which led to the appointing of an ad hoc advisory committee. After reviewing and discussing the full compilation of feedback from the public dating back to July of this year, the purpose of the committee will be to prepare a recommendation to council on the current proposal.

One by one members of the committee reported points of interest that they had come during their feedback review. Mayor Charbonneau brought attention to the physical scale of the project, which they thought to be one of the top concerns. This topic enveloped the look of the structures as well as the impact to sight lines for visitors as well as residents who live nearby.

Clarence agreed with Charbonneau and commented on the proposed sunset tower that seemed to be negatively viewed by the community, also mentioning challenges around making it accessible. Clarence reported a misconception of people believing the beach will be paved, which they deemed as inappropriate and something that would interfere with water drainage. Clarence also wondered if the timeline for the Harbour Street reconstruction project would interfere with the waterfront development. The CAO interjected to say Harbour Street project has been delayed to accommodate.

White brought up the environmental impact through increased traffic and waste generated by the commercial development, also suggesting that a more accurate three dimensional conceptual drawing would help clarify the confusion around the size and scale and the recurring concern of towel space.

Schmid identified comments about how parking will be laid out and if the new development will take away from beach parking. Clarence stressed the importance of having parking for the boaters where they can see their vehicles due to a lack of security on the beach. Both Schmid and Clarence informed the committee of a need for boating amenities in the form of a restaurant, laundry services, a boating supply store, and convenience store.

Councillor Smith raised concerns about the 50 year lease, safety and provision of liquor, and financial feasibility. Mayor Charbonneau further elaborated on his interpretation of the comments that referred to financial feasibility.

“No offence to Mr Donnini but I’m not sure the people are that concerned about his or his partners' financial well-being; but they are concerned with the financial well-being of the municipality,” stated Charbonneau.

“What does this mean for the people of the community and what risk does that put them at,” Charbonneau queried.

Continuing along the financial side of the project, Schmid spoke to concerns of the viability and practicality of having the facility operate year-round. Charbonneau added in the potential municipal costs associated with maintenance over the winter, such as snowplowing.

Clarence pointed out hesitation toward the ice rink and stated that sand was bound to end up on the ice and that would prove damaging to skates and equipment. On the positive side, Clarence said that the train was a welcome feature that everyone desired.

Clarence noted that the Request For Proposal (RFP) may have been misinterpreted by the public. “Like any municipal building or project like that,” explained Clarence, “you basically ask for a Cadillac and hope for a Chevy but if you start with a Volkswagen, you’re not going to get anything else,” they said.

"It’s easier to pare something down than to build something up," said Clarence.

The noise levels and shutdown time of 11 p.m. was also mentioned by Clarence who questioned what would happen when events were held at the community centre and how that would be controlled.

The Harbourlite Restaurant was also noted as a valuable asset to the Town and worth saving.

“The common theme,” announced Schmid, “was that the beach is the main attraction and we want to keep the beach as the main attraction."

Schmid referred to comments about the volleyball courts and whether it was appropriate to have them in the middle of the square and also noted the community responses expressing a dislike for a movie screen and a banquet hall and that retail spaces would take away from the downtown shopping.

Clarence shifted the focus to some of the more positive feedback, stating that a good percentage of the voters are in favour of this development to some extent. People are in support of a licensed restaurant and a musical venue.

White agreed that the overall feedback was supportive of the project but that scale was a concern. Councillor Smith reported support for upgrading the look and image of the current beach and providing activities and programs for visitors and residents.

Clarence directed the committee's attention to the proposal and how it is accurately aligned with the Waterfront Master Plan (WMP), a process in which Clarence was involved.

"We spent thousands of hours of writing on that,” stated Clarence. “Almost word for word out of that, every section is put into this proposal, which is nice to see,” they said. “We had meetings ten years ago with the public, asking what they wanted on the waterfront. That’s where the Waterfront Master Plan came from and that’s what this falls right into,” concluded Clarence.

Councillor Smith noted a positive response to the public private partnership and associated advantages.

Both Councillor Smith and Mayor Charbonneau identified the public’s unease around the overall community consultation process, as another issue that required attention.

At this point, having compiled what the committee saw as a conclusive and accurate list, one that was reflective of the various opinions of members of the public, Mayor Charbonneau invited CAO David Smith and Donnini to clarify and elaborate on said the concerns.

The CAO began by stating that the RFP procedure was followed appropriately and agreed that the RFP was in direct alignment with the WMP. Furthermore, Smith detailed the different waterfront zoning recognized in the WMP that identified the Port Elgin Main Beach as an area for commercial development while other areas were deemed suitable for a quiet, nature oriented beach.

“If you want a quiet beach, don’t go to the Port Elgin Main Beach,” said the CAO. Smith detailed their role as well as the role of Donnini in the waterfront project.

“Mr Donnini’s role is to represent his interests,” declared Smith. ”My role is to represent the Town's interests and I do that by working with Council and at some point we will hopefully come to a conclusion that meets his interest and meets the Town's interest," Smith explained.

"But I can assure you that we’re not at that point yet. Any suggestion that the deal is done, or anything at all, is farcical quite frankly," Smith said.

Smith explained that concept drawings continue to be drawn and discarded as they journey to a mutually pleasing vision which would then be presented to Council for approval as part of a public process.

"At any point [Donnini] may say, 'Nope, I'm out,' and at any point, [the Town] may say, 'We're out,'" Smith reminded the committee.

With a satellite image of the Main Beach and Harbour area on the projection screen, the CAO spoke to the confusion around the scope and scale of the development. Smith declared the current built form or total square footage of the buildings, not including public spaces, to be approximately the same size as the mini-put area at 23,800 square feet.

“The notion that it’s going to dominate the beach in terms of footprint, the notion that it’s overtaking the beach is not accurate,” claimed the CAO.

Smith noted that the footprint does not dictate the shape or location of the structures, reminded the committee that the RFP clearly stated that the location may be closer to the waterfront if needed, but said they are still refining those details.

The CAO confirmed that there will be no impact to towel space. “We’re not building on the beach,” said Smith, going on to say that the current proposal will increase towel space by moving the volleyball courts off the beach.

In regards to potential drainage issues, Smith informed the committee that the current design accommodates this with the drainage going right through the centre and the outlet through the harbour. “Mr. Donnini has his architect but we have engineers on staff that look at all of these things and make sure that we’re not doing something that is going to put the municipality in a problem situation in years to come,” said Smith.

The CAO also made the assurance that there are no plans to pave the beach. They dispelled the notion that the parking lot shown on the diagram from the September 3 public meeting was asphalt but rather greyed out to emphasize the boundaries.

Smith described the private public partnership as a way to accomplish the WMP and noted economic savings for both the municipality and the proponent in such a partnership by relieving the burden of capital and operating costs for the Town, and relieving the property cost for the proponent.

The Town will only be responsible for maintaining the municipal parking lot. "If it’s so busy down there that we need to plow it more often, then so much the better,” remarked the CAO. Apart from the snow removal, Smith said they are not projecting any additional municipal costs and Donnini would be responsible for garbage on the site, maintaining the skating rink and operating the train.

The CAO addressed the comments concerning parking issues with a banquet hall and claimed the events scheduled at the hall would provide sufficient information of when and how many cars would require parking, allowing for the necessary arrangements to be made in advance with a possible shuttle service. As for the municipal parking lot, Smith said they are working on creating a more efficient parking solution than what currently exists.

“I have empathy for the people who live here,” Smith admitted, highlighting the nearby homes on the satellite image. “There is impact to them and I absolutely understand that, we are also are looking at the broader community," Smith added.

In reference to the 50 year lease, Smith went back to the RFP which stated that for a new build, an extended lease would be considered. Smith went on to state that the $7 to $10 million investment warranted a lease of this length. “We’re looking for something long term,” Smith noted. “Let’s get the investment up front so it’s enjoyed and the community benefits," they said.

Smith acknowledged the frustration felt by the public in not getting answers. “If there were answers, we would give them," Smith ensured. “They’re aren’t. There will be.”

“There is skepticism with government, there is skepticism, I understand that,” admitted Smith. “The [staff] is privy to the work we do on a daily basis and if we were doing something untoward we wouldn’t be in the positions that we are,” concluded the CAO.

Charbonneau requested some assurance on the potential environmental impact, to which Smith replied that they are working closely with the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority. “They are experts on the environmental impact and we work closely with them, we have onsite meetings with them. The site plan has been adjusted to accommodate their feedback and their requirements. We will continue to do that,” the CAO explained.

Charbonneau also asked for an update on what has been done thus far on traffic flow analysis. Given the predicted area, as well as entrance and exit of the proposed development, Smith said staff are actively consulting with a local engineering firm to find the best fit solution while incorporating the Harbour Street reconstruction and a formal entrance into the Port Elgin Main Beach as described in the WMP.

“We’ll have a solution before we say, 'Yes, this makes sense,'" assured Smith, "which will involve a traffic/parking flow, some of it may take investment over time and that’s what the WMP called for and that’s what council’s investment in the waterfront has suggested."

The CAO returned to the 50 year lease and mentioned they are collaborating with two lawyers, a commercial lease lawyer and a municipal lawyer, to draft the lease agreement. To protect the Municipality's best interests, Smith said the lease will incorporate terms that will allow the Town to end the relationship if at some point during the life of the lease the proposal fails in some way.

Donnini expanded on the licensed restaurant and deemed the 11 p.m. shutdown fitting to the location and community. “The easy choice, when I saw the RFP, was to say I want a bar and a restaurant and I want it open until 2 a.m. and everything else be damned,” stated Donnini. “But that wasn’t the right choice for the community, it wasn’t the right choice for me and the right choice was something that was reasonable,” they said.

Charbonneau brought up the potential for special occasions to be held at the banquet hall and how a Special Occasions Permit would impact the 11 p.m. shutdown. Donnini said he believed the lease would include terms that would limit the number of these types of events, either on an annual or monthly basis, but said the specifics are still under negotiation.

The Mayor returned to the public concerns surrounding the viability of businesses on the waterfront. "I think the public, when they express those concerns, would like to hear assurance about, or some more detail about how a facility can be viable year round there and succeed and stay successful for 50 years,” said Charbonneau. “And they’d also like to hear how are we protected in the case that that doesn’t work out."

CAO David Smith came back to the lease agreement that would include protection for the municipality in such a case. “If the operation’s not successful," said Smith, "the municipality will be the owner of a $7 to $10 million capital investment on our beach."

The CAO said he has advised Donnini not to cut it too thin so as to threaten the economic viability which he said he believed may have caused beachfront properties to fail in the past. “We don’t want middle of the road success. We want him to be incredibly successful,” said Smith, “and failing that we want him to be incredibly unsuccessful, quite frankly. The middle area creates challenges for everyone," the CAO claimed.

Smith also pointed out the increased reliability in knowing that the proposal is coming from local business owners.

Donnini stressed the importance of timing during this substantial growth occurring in Saugeen Shores. In terms of his own business, The Queen’s Bar & Grill, Donnini reported a growth in revenue that has matched the growth in the community, three-fold.

"Our revenue in February this year was what we used to do in July approximately six years ago," Donnini said. "There are those who think we shut the doors on this town on Labour Day, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth and I think we need to celebrate that point," Donnini added.

"What that provides for businesses is year-round viability," they said.

According to their economic team, Smith suggested an appeal for service workers who often have trouble finding stable year-round employment.

With time running short, Smith and Donnini briefly discussed the market space for the new development. “What we’d like to do, generally speaking, is update the quality of the offerings at these markets,” said Donnini. “Effectively these are traveling businesses that are using prime community property... the rate they pay should reflect that and what they offer should reflect the location.” Donnini said they’re still working on details, but it will strictly be to benefit the not-for-profit groups.

Clarence asked Donnini to comment on the type of bands that would be hosted. Donnini described them as background type music with the possibility of one or two bigger bands each summer. Charbonneau delved further into the noise levels on the beach and asked how Donnini sees the everyday noise on the beach being impacted by the development.

Donnini admitted the increased activity and higher noise levels but described kids playing and families having fun as “noise that is appropriate for a harbour area."

“I just want to reiterate that the Waterfront Master Plan does call for the Port Elgin Main Beach to be a busy activity centre,” repeated the CAO. “It is not, in the Waterfront Master Plan, to be a quiet solitude beach, there are other beaches along the waterfront to do that," Smith said.

Donnini spoke fondly of the Harbourlite Restaurant and mentioned that he did not see any competition between his establishment and this existing business. Donnini said there had already had discussions with Harbourlite co-owner Joan Johnston as to how they will handle the increased volume. “It’s a great little place. It’s got a lot of history, it used to be called the Tea Room,” said Donnini. “I hope [Johnston] can find a way to make it sustainable." Donnini added that Johnston will have to make decisions on how far her season is going to expand.

The topic of duplicating amenities and drawing business away from the downtown was mentioned and addressed by Donnini.

“Business breeds business,” remarked Donnini. “It was a lesson that I learned in real-time and I couldn’t believe it more than I’ve ever believed it. More commercial activities create more commercial activities. That’s just the nature of business.”

Donnini expressed his interest in creating a passport type program with the BIA to attempt to build a connection between the downtown and the beach. Donnini also suggested the development becoming a member of the BIA.

Schmid asked Donnini to shed more light on the retail spaces. Donnini reported that they would be minimal due to space restraints and said he was envisioning lifestyle type shops, making mention of fitness or health and wellness related endeavours. "That’s a pretty wide berth,” confessed Donnini, “but I think they will fit well there.” Donnini also mentioned other food options such as coffee and ice-cream, as well as boating amenities.

White brought up the proposed timeline for breaking ground and completion of the project. The CAO admitted the RFP cited a next summer installation, which he called an aggressive timeframe and agreed there are studies that need to happen.

“Donnini would like us to have a lease in place ASAP, so would we quite frankly, as long as we’ve gone through the due diligence for his benefit and ours,” exclaimed Smith. “Our goal definitely is to have something in place in 2020.”

Charbonneau raised concerns from the public that the project needs to slow down and asked for their report to include reasoning on the current timeline and the impact of delaying.

Before wrapping up, Clarence addressed the train which he referred to as the elephant in the room. They very pointedly asked Donnini about the type of train as well as the route.

“What we want is a tourism train feature that can be easily maintained and will run all the time so that we can get the maximum benefit from it,” answered Donnini. “The train we are hoping to be able to provide is electric... it does not run on a track so that provides a real flexibility in terms of route, which is good,” Donnini said.

“I’d like to see it run from North Shore Park to Izzard Street if we could,” mused Donnini, “and staff has experts that can tell me if that makes sense," they added.

Although both the CAO and Donnini were frustrated with the lack of an accurate visual concept of the project to present, Donnini reminded the committee that "this is the process and in fact if anybody has suspicions of this process, the evidence... that there is nothing to be suspicious about, is that it’s taking us so long to come to an image, a rendering that we are comfortable to present to say, 'What do you think?'" Donnini explained.

The Mayor and CAO ensured those present that an accurate concept drawing would be required to be presented to Council before anything is approved.

Charbonneau stated that staff would compile all the discussions from their meeting and the committee would then use that material to eventually draft a recommendation to Council. A date for the next meeting is yet to be determined.

See also: Village square proposed for the Port Elgin Main Beach

Waterfront public meeting well attended

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