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A Different Perspective
  by Francie Dennison  
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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 commitment.

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 of people.

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.


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