Lessons from Saugeen Shores

View from the Strip
By Casey Lessard

I had the pleasure of driving up the coast a few kilometers with Chris Bregman of the chamber of commerce, business owner George Appel, and Lakeshore Advance editor Lynda Hillman-Rapley Friday. We took Chris’ van to Saugeen Shores to see what we thought they were doing right and wrong. It was an eye opener, more than anything, to see how it compares to Grand Bend. That was my main focus.
After spending the day in two communities, it was clear that Saugeen Shores – although a beach town, too – is more interested in the locals than the tourists. Sure, tourists come, and people I spoke with said they fill the beach, but there is no beach house, no splash pad, and no paid parking. You read that correctly.
They’ve built their town around the beach, but it’s a side salad to the main course: the business centre. And there are no t-shirt or tattoo shops (nothing against them), but plenty of restaurants (not fry shacks) and bars. Just like a normal small town. Not a beach town. Think Exeter with a lake where the river is.
So, is this a good thing or a bad thing? It seems like a shame not to embrace the beach and its tourism opportunities. But they have a beach and still bring tourists. How? Big events. International tourist events. Pumpkinfest vegetables have set world records in the past. Plus their Wikipedia site says National Geographic selected the town as one of the world’s prettiest sunsets (sound familiar?).
For people there, at least it seems by looking at the thriving locally focused businesses, the tourists are secondary to year-round residents. Sound good? Easier said than done.
Grand Bend is a beach town, and it is a tourist draw. We don’t have a major employer like the nuclear power plant, and I doubt we want one of those here. We’re too close to London to have key year-round businesses like bookstores and movie theatres. So, what do we do?
If I had my way, I’d see every downtown building owned locally with residential features to all of them. George Appel thinks main street living year-round will breed main street businesses year-round. I think he’s right. Let’s bring the tax base down low enough that people will see a profit, and let’s put by-laws into place that give the municipality some control over the appearance of main street facades. I’ve heard that Stratford does it, and look at their businesses.
If it’s going to work, it will take cooperation between businesses, building owners and the municipality. Is that possible?