What Grand Bend can learn from a visit to Southampton and Port Elgin
Story and photos by Casey Lessard
What is the first thing a visitor notices about Grand Bend? The answer to that question will soon be delivered by a delegation from Saugeen Shores as part of an exchange program organized by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). The program, called the First Impressions Community Exchange, involves a diverse group of business owners and residents traveling to a community similar to theirs but a few hours away. This week, Grand Bend Strip publisher Casey Lessard was among the group organized by Grand Bend Chamber of Commerce manager Chris Bregman on a Lambton Shores sponsored trip to Southampton and Port Elgin to assess the first impressions of the communities. “The first impression is an invaluable marker for communities to decide which things they need to work on first,” Bregman says. “That could be signage, or working on infrastructure. It provides guidance to the community to know which projects to move ahead with.” Captain’s Cottages owner Dinah Taylor joined the trip to assess retail and business services in Southampton, a beach town similar in size to Grand Bend. “Our observations on Highway 21 were not terribly positive, but my view of Highway 21 going into Grand Bend isn’t all that positive, either,” Taylor says. “But once we got onto the high street, which is the main retail area, we were very impressed. What they have there is very much the sort of thing we’d like to see on main street Grand Bend. “There was a huge mix of stores and services. They had a kitchen store that has everything you could want. They had a 100 mile grocery store that was like going back in time. The store had whole wheat pasta grown and manufactured in Ontario. I didn’t know you could get that stuff. They had a lingerie store that you might find in London somewhere. A sporting goods store that had kayaks for rent, lifejackets for rent, and really interesting gear for sale like snowshoes and surfboards. “Talking to people there, they said they had no drop in business this summer, and sales were actually up at the lingerie store during rainy weather.” While concerned about the lack of wheelchair access consistent throughout the town, and a lack of activities for children, Taylor came away from the experience envious. “They had exactly what we want, and at the right level. They gave the feeling of a comfortable year-round community where it would be nice to raise a family.” A commercial and residential property owner, chamber treasurer George Appel assessed recreational activities and was impressed, returning to Grand Bend with a sense of where village needs work. “(Saugeen Shores) presents much better. Our main street doesn’t have the look it should. The buildings need a lot of work. I don’t know how to do it, but part of the problem is the tax rate businesses have to pay and the fact that we have such a short season. The businesses don’t have the revenue to pay for remodeling. “We have the attractions they do,” he says. “We have the Pinery Park, the Playhouse, the Motorplex and the drive-in. But they don’t drive people downtown.” Appel noticed excellent signage in Port Elgin pointing visitors to the beach, which is not immediately visible the way it is in Southampton. A group of British visitors at the beach in Southampton said they stopped simply because they could see the “sea” from the highway. It’s something Chris Bregman would like to see mimicked here. “If there was a way we could make the visible from Highway 21, it would capture more first time visitors,” she says. “Whether that’s possible or not, I don’t know. Maybe clearer signage saying ‘Beach This Way’ would help.” And once the people are drawn in, Dinah Taylor thinks it would be nice to explain what’s significant about the area. “I think what’s missing here are the historic plaques explaining the history of our area,” she says. “Grand Bend is a historic place, and many of the people who come here don’t know the first thing about Grand Bend.” One of the key successes for Saugeen Shores is a business centre that is focused principally on local residents, with tourism – and yes, even the beach itself – secondary to local traffic; it’s almost the opposite approach to that taken in Grand Bend. “I hope the Main Street project is going to encourage a different kind of retail business,” Taylor says. “In Southampton, there was a very comfortable feeling. It was clean. The downtown was well maintained and there is a sense of pride in the community. I’m not saying that’s lacking in Grand Bend. They have a tradition of a year-round population. Our downtown doesn’t reflect that yet.” It will take some time, says Appel. “Maybe we’re being unfair comparing Grand Bend with Saugeen Shores with the higher population and high-paid people. Retired people don’t spend as much money as people making a living with children. “They’ve got the Bruce nuclear plant with high paid people who are living there year round,” he says. “The solution is more year round people in the area. Then we have to get stores downtown that people want to go to year round. There just isn’t enough traffic downtown.” Chamber manager Chris Bregman learned a lot from the trip, and will be pushing for one change to mimic what is done in Saugeen Shores. “Their chamber takes charge of events and promoting them, and the municipality provides funds for the tourist information centre. (Seeing) the very close relationship the chamber of commerce has with the municipality; I think we could make a real difference to the economic development if we had that kind of relationship.” Bregman hopes to exchange thoughts in person with the Saugeen Shores delegation; she’s inviting them to the chamber’s annual general meeting November 12 at Hessenland.