BY GARY MAY
Matthew Costello and Ricki Oltean were brimming with optimism when they moved to Pelee Island from Windsor more than five years ago. They opened a bed and breakfast and added a bakery, delicatessen, catering business and pizzeria.
After they arrived, plans for a $100-million resort were announced and the young couple’s enthusiasm for their new community rose. “We really bought into the whole tourism concept,” Matthew tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. “It sounded so good. It would be amazing.”
Today, the resort is no closer to reality. The little island in the far western reaches of Lake Erie is beset by a sluggish economy and dwindling population, and looks on with envy as neighbouring islands on the Ohio side of the international boundary grow prosperous from a buoyant tourist trade.
Matthew admits he and Ricki, who shuttered their B&B with the arrival of their second child, have thought about leaving the island they love because of fears for the future.
“I’m worried,” Matthew admits. “I’ve got two young kids. We’ve got fewer than 300 permanent residents here and the elementary school has nine students.”
Still, Matthew says he’s looking ahead to this tourist season with a positive outlook, “because there’s really nothing else to do.”
What ails an island with so many natural assets?
Getting to the island can have its challenges
Pelee Island Township consists of Pelee Island and eight smaller islands, but only the largest is permanently inhabited. It boasts acres of graperies and rich winemaking history, charming B&Bs, rare plants and wildlife that thrive in vast natural areas, fine bird-watching opportunities and waves lapping at the white sand beaches.
How has it remained so far off the tourist radar screen — a place where, even at the height of the summer season, the permanent population of 275 is augmented by no more than 2,000 visitors at any given time?
Even though it’s surrounded by 35 million Canadians and Americans, the little island township is one of Ontario’s most remote communities. “Sometimes it’s as hard to get here as it is to get to Hudson Bay,” says township Mayor Rick Masse.
But help could be on the way. Masse says he’s delighted Ontario has agreed to undertake a transportation study that will look at improving links to the mainland as well as better ways of moving people around the island. He’s also “very excited” about a proposal to establish an international school of environmental studies on Pelee.
“Things are looking up,” he says.
Pelee’s location is an asset and a hindrance. It is a tranquil oasis, a place where the lack of things to do makes relaxing a must. But tourists from the Golden Horseshoe and Ottawa region often shun the region because it’s “too far to drive.” And even if they make the trip down Highway 401 to Windsor, getting to Pelee Island requires another 45-kilometre drive to the lakeshore and a 90-minute ferry ride.
This year’s ferry season got off to a rough start when the Pelee Islander
ferry had to be sent to Toledo for repairs just nine days after it first set sail in late March. Susan Schrempf, general manager for The Owen Sound Transportation Company, the agency that operates the ferry service for the Ontario government, says efforts were made to bring the larger Jiimaan
into service earlier than scheduled, but the island was without its ferry link for 19 days.
Many say the Jiimaan
, a swift, attractive and modern vessel, isn’t suited to the shallow waters of Lake Erie. Crossings are frequently cancelled because it sits so high off the water that windy conditions would make it unsafe to sail. As well, they say, the west-side island dock it uses is susceptible to windier conditions than one on the north side.
Official Plan rewritten to accommodate resort development
But even if the ferry system were improved to bring more tourists to the island, there’s only so much accommodation and activities for them. That’s where the resort idea, first introduced by an Ohio developer, would be a boon to the economy.
Those grand development plans have been complicated by the maze of government ministries and agencies that have a say in any project on the island, a maze that, according to the mayor, would require $3 million in studies. Provincial ministries of Agriculture and Food, Natural Resources, Environment and Heritage all have an interest, as does Essex County’s conservation authority.
“I sometimes think regulations are written for people in Toronto,” Masse says. “They don’t take into account the special circumstances of little places like Pelee Island.”
What Pelee Island seems to need is a champion, someone who can run interference through the regulations and special circumstances that complicate projects like the resort that just about everyone on the island agrees could be its saviour.
When it was proposed in 2007, the idea was to build up to 3,000 resort-related residential units over 20 years, in a manner that protects, maintains and enhances the island’s unique natural heritage. There were plans for a 600-slip marina with retail space, restaurants, entertainment venues, farmers’ market, conference centre, tourist accommodations and office space.
The project was tied to the township’s new Official Plan, with zoning to permit active outdoor recreational uses, including a golf course, parks and playfields, campgrounds, aquatic facilities, tennis courts, ball courts, winter activity areas, sportsman facilities, bicycle and fitness courses.
Was it too ambitious a plan for such a small municipality? The province thought so. The project is tied up with the Official Plan, passage of which, Masse says, is being delayed because Ontario doubts the municipality could administer such a large development. Negotiations between the province and Pelee Island continue.
Undaunted, Pelee Island is going after funds for a feasibility study for a private high school that would attract students from across Canada and abroad, to study at a school that offers enhanced learning opportunities in ecological studies, conservation and environmental sciences. It could also be the saving grace for local students who currently must leave the island to attend classes.
“We could have a hundred international students here, paying tuition, and employing teachers and support staff,” says Masse. “It would be a tremendous opportunity.”
“What better place?” asks the mayor. “You have a living laboratory here. You’re in the middle of the world’s largest freshwater fishery. You have rare species of birds and plants. There’s more biodiversity here than any place else in the Great Lakes.”
The island’s survival strategy, then, has been laid out: Build an internationally recognized school. Improve transportation. And build more tourist facilities. Islanders anxiously await the results. Stay tuned ...