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Open Air footprint, frequency to be discussed further


Photo of Amherstburg Town Hall

 

Open Air Weekends is back for another 14-week program with the footprint and the frequency to receive further study in the future.


Two local businesses – Flow Cafe and Bikes and Musicland – requested the southern boundary on Dalhousie St. be extended southward from its current location near Murray St. to beyond the Queen Charlotte condominium building to allow the businesses inside that building, such as Flow Cafe and Bikes, to be included in the footprint. 


Town council would vote on a motion by Councillor Don McArthur, after a lengthy and sometimes acrimonious discussion, to have administration look at the matter with that including consultation with businesses on that block and proper signage for residents and visitors. Council would pass that motion 6-1 with Councillor Diane Pouget opposed.


A later motion, suspended during the debate on the matter “indefinitely” during the initial debate, was brought back under new business by Councillor Molly Allaire. That motion called for a public meeting in the fall with businesses to discuss the footprint and frequency of Open Air Weekends and how things went during the 2024 season.


Dave Doherty from Flow Cafe and Bikes said his business opened last year after the boundaries for Open Air Weekends were established. He said they saw a noticeable drop-off in business despite being about 75-feet from the boundary.


The barriers were “a strong deterrent” for people to come on the other side of.

“We’re effectively closed off from the people enjoying Open Air,” said Doherty.


When the business was included in the boundaries for the Amherstburg’s Gone Car Crazy show, Doherty said they saw a dramatic increase in revenue.

“As a bike shop and cafe, our season is basically nice weather and weekends,” he said.


Surrounding businesses were asked what they thought, Doherty added, and they were in favour. He suggested the footprint alteration could be the difference between staying in town or leaving.


“We hope we can be here for a long time,” he said.


Bethany D’Alimonte, owner of Musicland, quoted figures including a return on investment of $13.2 million for Open Air Weekends and 123,000 people attending. She said Festivals and Events Ontario rank Open Air highly and called on town council to compromise and extend the footprint.


D’Alimonte said Open Air Weekends have had positive impacts to her business and said the events can be bigger and better by making the necessary changes each year.


“I know some do not do great with change, me being one of them, but for a small town, change is needed,” she said. “By making (Open Air) the same year over year, it will not do it justice.”


D’Alimonte added she was speaking for many of the businesses in the footprint, stating “I have talked to pretty much everyone downtown.” She said many like Open Air but have their viewpoints “twisted” by people. 


Businesses add to the vibrancy of downtown and the town would “be a lifeless town without us.” Five years ago, Amherstburg was “a lifeless town” and she said she was one of the people who felt that way.


Sue Hudson called for quantifiable measureables to gauge the success of Open Air. She questioned surveys that were done, believing such surveys can have “a pre-determined narrative” and the presentation of survey results can be made to fit whatever narrative is being sought.


“I have no issue with Open Air but having it year over year without review from council is perplexing,” said Hudson.


Hudson wanted the town to establish clear objectives, measure the outcomes and get the outcomes they expect. She wants the town to set goals and objectives, tell the public how they are going to be measured “and measure it.”


Linda Saxon questioned the accessibility of Open Air Weekends, noting the event was established during the COVID-19 pandemic to assist businesses but has continued. She believed the event has a negative impact to those with disabilities and pointed out the town’s recently adopted Strategic Plan calls for the town to be accessible and inclusive.


With COVID restrictions lifted, Amherstburg can work to “get back on the track for accessibility,” she believed.


“Accessibility should never be compromised,” said Saxon, believing taking golf carts to restaurants and businesses was not a dignified way to deal with the issue. She said there are still visual and attitudinal barriers, including actual barricades themselves. Pouget would agree and believed the town needs to ensure it meets accessibility legislation.


The accessibility committee had a “free flowing conversation” on the matter late last year, said McArthur, and had came up with suggestions to aggressively market where accessible parking is and ticket violators who park there.


Deputy CAO/director of development services Melissa Osborne went over numbers for Open Air  and that the weekly event went from being an economic relief for businesses to an economic driver. She said the economic impact numbers were using Tourism Windsor-Essex Pelee Island (TWEPI) formulas, adding the town has $180,000 in funding set aside in the budget for 2024. She stated the town still applies for grants, noting there was $119,000 obtained in grants and sponsorships last year. 


Osborne did note labour is on a separate line item, as workers can be called on to work at other events and areas of town.


As for moving barriers, Osborne recommended a traffic study to ensure the safety of pedestrians and motorists in the south area of the Dalhousie St. boundary. She added there has been an investment in directional signage and businesses outside the footprint are invited to participate in weekly night markets.


McArthur noted there were meetings last year on the subject and it also came up during budget, with little said. He said that council doesn’t tell staff how to organize other events like Canada Day and Amherstburg Uncommon. Pouget questioned why it was proceeding at a 14-week schedule, believing council didn't pass any motions, adding road closures and noise bylaw exemptions still come before town council.


“This council is acting as if we approved it,” Pouget said midway through the debate. “We did not approve it.”


Pouget added: “This has not been brought forward as an official motion.” 


“What we are doing, I believe, is illegal and contrary to the Municipal Act,” charged Pouget.


Deputy Mayor Chris Gibb said Open Air was approved in budget and “that is what set this forward.” Clerk Kevin Fox stated with no changes in service level put forth, administration proceeded with the established service level. CAO Valerie Critchley noted motions dating back to March 13, 2023 delegating authority to administration and that the budget was approved without caveats. 


“Nothing illegal has taken place,” said Critchley. “Nothing contrary to the Municipal Act has taken place.”


Pouget would later counter the debate on previous motions, believing council did not give administration authority to close streets.


Councillor Peter Courtney said no one on council said they don’t want Open Air Weekends, but there are issues that still need to be worked out. He didn’t like calling it an “event” as taxpayer money is used to close down streets for businesses in the area.


“It’s now a business model,” he said.


Courtney also took offence to the suggestion that Amherstburg was “sleepy” before the pandemic, which prompted a response from McArthur, accusing Courtney of “taking shots at a delegate.” Courtney said it wasn’t his intent to single out D’Alimonte.


Councillor Linden Crain hoped the issue surrounding moving the boundary on Dalhousie St. could be resolved prior to the start of the season – which is May 31 to Labour Day weekend – but Osborne indicated the boundary could start one way and end another as administration needs time to prepare the report.


Mayor Michael Prue called it “a good motion” and didn’t want to see a time frame placed on it.


Allaire’s motion to have a meeting to discuss the footprint, frequency and other matters was “a proactive approach” to dealing with the matter in 2025 but others believed it premature. McArthur said he didn’t object to consulting with the public but “I don’t feel the time is tonight” for such a motion. McArthur believed the motion would send “a mixed message” to the public.


The public said “with great relish” they like Open Air, McArthur added, and that “it puts Amherstburg on the map for all the right reasons.”


“I don’t want every year for it to have the Sword of Damocles hanging over it,” he said.


Courtney said the motion would help “build intel” for next year but Crain said the debate sends a message to grant providers and sponsors the event is “unstable.”


Gibb believed the motion would “cause angst” and didn’t want to seem it puts “what we have at risk.”


“My prediction is this will solve nothing,” he said of the meeting later this year.


Prue said the motion lets staff and council know the meeting will be held “at an appropriate time” and that while it will cause grief for some, it will also galvanize supporters.


“I think Open Air is one of the greatest things Amherstburg has done. I’d be hard pressed to vote against it,” said Prue, adding the future meeting could “fine tune it to make it better.”


Allaire, Courtney, Pouget and Prue voted for a post-2024 season meeting while McArthur, Crain and Gibb opposed. Open Air footprint, frequency to be discussed further

By Ron Giofu

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