There are Ports of Call all along the shores of Lakes Erie, Lake Huron and Georgian
Bay, each with varying aspects of appeal and each experiencing varying degrees of
economic success. As Port Stanley is facing some major challenges in its harbour
development plan I took a working holiday last week to visit a number of these ports
to see if I could discover any consistent key elements to success for a resort community.
Well, it turns out there are some very distinct key elements for tourist and economic
success which could be applied with varying degrees of adaptability to Port Stanley.
The single most important key to success is that the resort community lie on a major
traffic route that flows traffic from somewhere and to somewhere.
The most successful resorts are on Lake Huron and Georgian Bay and this traffic
flow pattern is true of all of them, even when the beach is not on that main road.
Port Elgin and Southampton both have a major business district on the main traffic
route that offers a wide variety of choices for accommodation, dining, shopping
and services. Similarly, the route through Grand Bend (Hwy 21) is becoming a major
commercial row, even hosting the Oakwood Golf Resort along the outer edge of that
strip. In all of these communities, the beach, in and of itself, is not the main
focus of the town; rather, the beach is a part of the town developed to enhance
the total experience.
Along Lake Erie's shores one usually has to leave the main highway (Hwy 3) and travel
a secondary road to the beach, as a destination and not as an attraction
along the route. This creates an inconvenience many people won't encompass - unless
the destination is attractive enough to make the detour worth the trip. Travelling
southwest, Erieau was the first such resort I encountered that was an absolute pleasure
to visit, well worth the detour. As you approach the town you see large grassy berms
created with dirt and armour stone to protect the roads and town from storm surge
flooding. In your car, at first you can't really see the lake but the berms have
trees, and a walking trail and benches along it that overlook the lake. It feels
like the environment here has been planned for human activity.
As you get right into the town the road divides into two one-way routes, one flowing
into town and the other flowing out of town, with a broad, grassed and treed boulevard
in the middle extending pretty much the entire length of the main route. This boulevard
has large shade trees, pavilions, benches, waste receptacles and a cement sidewalk
running its entire length. There is also free angle parking along its entire length,
with a turn around break in the middle. Cottages and sidewalks and lots more shade
trees run along both sides of this main peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie.
This carefully planned entrance to town creates a welcoming effect with an air of
unhurried, relaxed grace where you can kick back and set a while, drinking in the
tranquillity of this very human-oriented environment while sipping on a mint julep.
People seemed more interested in fishing than in the actual beach, and lots of people
were walking the broad boulevard down the centre of town, on their way to or from
a bit of shopping or perhaps a bite to eat.
Leamington is one of the few Lake Erie resort towns that actually lies on the main
lakeside transportation route of Hwy 3. It's a very busy city and it's beach and
harbour are only a part of the town, albeit an integral part. That said, they've
gone to great lengths to make it an extremely human-oriented environment. A huge
park area has been devoted to beach and harbour activities containing broad expanses
of grassy areas, benches, and shade trees. There are pavilions of various sizes
and intended for various from a family picnic or reunion to a live concert. Large
areas of shoreline have armour stone, like Port Stanley's berm does, but these areas
also contain well maintained grassy lawns, large shade trees, bike racks, and picnic
tables. They are a very inviting place to go for a stroll, throw a Frisbee around,
or do a little sport fishing.
The marina is neat and clean, having been rebuilt some time ago with the help of
some government grant funding. It has a beautiful office, public washrooms, patios
with chairs, tables and dappled shade, and water depth to accommodate boats like
the ferry to Pelee Island. They also have bicycle rentals which are probably most
welcome by the many boaters who dock there. Parking throughout the marina and beach
area is free. Presumably Leamington makes its harbour maintenance money from marina
slip and docking fees, ferry docking fees, and pavilion rental fees.
This brings me to another obvious key for resort town success, and that key is the
necessity for the entire resort to create a very human-friendly environment. The
most successful resort towns that I visited all had shade trees - lining both sides
of the streets in the business district, on the way to the beach and in the beach
area. I've already described this aspect of Erieau and Leamington, but you will
find the same thing in Southampton, Port Elgin, Owen Sound and even Grand Bend.
Grand Bend has rescaped its strip to the beach, adding broad cobblestone sidewalks
and even a "potted" shade tree here and there; but it is packed business to business
on both sides of the street offering a wealth of selection and choices. A stroll
down either side of that street is an adventure in itself, never mind the actual
beach. Now that is a shopping district truly designed to have you smiling
as you are parted from your money and loaded down with purchases. New York merchants
eat your hearts out!
But Grand Bend did not ignore its beach in its redevelopment. Yes, it has only pay
parking, but it also has washrooms, playground equipment, a splash pad, pavilions,
a main administration building, lifeguards, and some shade trees. Port Elgin's beach
is similarly developed except that it is bigger and the parking is free. Southampton's
actual beach is not quite as nice, but the approach to it is gorgeous and they even
have a bench on the lake view side of a wishing fountain, along with a 175 foot
flag pole flying the Canadian flag. Parking is limited but free and the approach
is lined with trees and flower gardens. Of course, Southampton has done its entire
business district to maintain its unique historical heritage. Walking or driving
the streets of Southampton is an experience in architectural styles through the
ages. Again, the entire look is so inviting it makes you want to stop and take the
time to explore this appealing little town.
Even though Goderich is not a resort town per se, a while back they went to considerable
effort to develop their beach front into a human-friendly environment with boardwalks,
pavilions, washrooms, sand (instead of stoney shores), grasses and shade trees,
picnic tables and picnic areas. Owen Sound has large park areas along its waterfront,
again with washroom facilities, pavilions, benches, walkways, picnic tables and
shade trees. There is no charge for parking, but the Georgian Shores Marina seems
to be privately operated. Even Tobermory is human-oriented for easy access to and
from the ferry.
We took the Chi-Cheemaun ferry over to Manitoulin Island. Now that is a destination
that is definitely at the end of the road as it is not really on the way to
anywhere, but a lot of people are choosing to visit anyway. It has resort communities
that lie on the Great Lakes or on any of a number of interior lakes on the island.
The one thing they all have in common is the obvious effort put into making the
resort human-friendly with a very physically appealing environment. This held true
all through the north country as it borders Georgian Bay. This is cottage country
populated by Torontonians and they expect their wilderness groomed into attractive
parks and easy nature trails, with all the conveniences of city life - and all of
these communities oblige. no where that I went was there a community that would
have left an area like our berm in the kind of ungroomed abandoned state that currently
exists on Port Stanley's berm. At a minimum, they would have at least cut
down the weeds and grasses, established a graded sand walkway around it, added a
shade tree or two, and graded the parking area free of ruts and potholes - even
if they were waiting for Transport Canada to get its act together and fulfill their
The last key ingredient I identified on my journeys is room to grow. The most successful
resort towns have room to grow, expand the business district, parking availability,
beach area, residential areas, and improve traffic flow. Port Stanley has no room
to grow to make the kind of human-friendly environment it needs. It has only infilling
room. Reinventing William Street into the kind of street Grand Bend has leading
to its beach would take a lot of capital and an enormous commitment over the long
haul on the part of property owners working in partnership with the municipality.
It's hard to get people to commit long term to anything. The beachside parking lots
could be paved, as they are in all of the other communities I visited on this trip.
The only community that had pay parking beachside was Grand Bend; all the rest were
free parking and the beaches and beach area parks were being widely used by lots
So, the key ingredients I identified that make for successful resort towns are:
- 1. lying on a major traffic route that flows traffic to and from other locations.
Port Stanley can't do anything about its location;
- 2. creating a human-friendly, welcoming environment that includes large grass areas,
shade trees, walking/hiking/cycling paths, washrooms, pavilion and picnic amenities;
- 3. a decent, well-maintained marina seems to be an integral part of this human-friendly
environment. They all had them, even on the Manitoulin Island resorts;
- 4. another integral part of the human-friendly environment is a business district
that is truly a shopping district offering a wide selection of shopping, dining,
accommodation and service choices;
- 5. room to grow. Port Stanley has very limited room to grow and the necessary parklands
to attract tourists have never been part of the plan in Port Stanley. Most of our
waterfront (river and lake) is privately owned or leased to private interests. The
only opportunity to create the kind of tourist-appealing park waterfront that is
needed is on the berm and the east and west piers. There is a limited amount of
room for residential growth in the outlying areas that surround the village.
- 6. the revenues generated from beach development, park-like beach areas and harbour
marinas needs to go into municipal coffers, not private business interests - unless
those private business interests are contractually obligated to provide to the municipality
revenues sufficient to properly maintain and develop the facilities and infrastructure.