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CRYSTAL BEACH NOW, Re-invention, With A Touch Of Nostalgia

Submitted by Christine Whelan

July 8th, 2021 VOL. 2 ISSUE 23

Crystal Beach is evolving, and the experience is coming with layers of emotion. I want to honour the youth within us, to honour that part that is grieving what is being slowly lost, giving way to change — that part that needs to reminisce, allowing treasured moments to surface and be expressed.

I also want to empower the current-aged adult in us, to acknowledge how far things have come and to have the insight to look forward, to a Crystal Beach that can thrive in these days. I want to encourage and inspire the current-day member of the community in us to take a chance in being a part of the progress.

I’m not sure Crystal Beach can survive one without the other.

We are told to feel a certain way about what is happening to Crystal Beach. What about the notion of feeling more than one feeling, even if they seem contradictory? We are capable as humans, so why not? We can feel hopeful yet nostalgic, excited and yet recognize a deep sadness.

Crystal Beach works on holding onto its history because the history of Crystal Beach is worth holding on to. But wow, have you seen it lately? The village is coming back to life! And the effect is eclectic.

Two different generations — two different sets of experiences

Those who remember the days of the park or “the good ol’ days”, are experiencing a sense of slowly losing their youth. I remember my dad saying the same thing, when his schools and favourite locations going down in Welland, that it was the “erasing of his youth”, I am going to go out on a limb and say that this is quite a common thing for all ages, throughout the ages.

When speaking to the younger generation in “the beach”, their experience starts with a decrepit town, now building up. They are excited. The past glory days are only stories to them, told by their parents, for the most part. They are anxious to create the next set of glory days.

It’s easy to see how people who grew up in the area think about those days even more now, with the world in the state that it is. This resonates with comments made on posts with images such as the Tropical Hut on social media.

“When living was easy.”

“Excitement all the time. People. Bright lights. Great smells of many foods stands and restaurants.” Sugar waffles, Hall’s suckers.

Derby Road once called Hot Dog Alley, where, someone reminisced, “everything happened on that one block”, was also the home of Tropical Hut.

Tropical Hut, originally Confelt’s Loganberry, was demolished just a couple of weeks ago, on June 24th. By the next day, patrons were eating their lunches on picnic tables, freshly placed on the white slab of concrete that once was the foundation under the floor where the infamous George stood to serve his beloved souvlaki pitas many years ago.

A man with a vision: It’s a balancing act

Phil Smith, owner of both sides of the first two blocks of Derby Road, with exception of a couple of buildings, owns the Tropical Hut property. He recently commented on a post of a photo of the Tropical Hut on Facebook, “I’m going to work hard to replace the Tropical Hut with a really cool building with a historical feel to it. I hope everyone who is nostalgic like me will be pleased.”

The comment was the reason I contacted Smith.

I asked him, in anticipation, if he could first, elaborate on that comment. “I have an idea in mind. I have a look in mind, basing it on something that is historical. It will definitely be unique.” We will have to wait and see about those specific details, however, the businessman shared his vision of the village with me, along with what motivates him.

“No one would have faulted me, I don’t think, for knocking down those buildings.” He was referring to the west side of the bottom end of Derby Road, from Raynn Activewear, which is next to his restaurant, South Coast, up to his office, the Royal LePage building. “They were in really poor shape. I had contractors advising to just start over.”

However, he explained how he loves history and likes to make old things new again, breathe life into things, so that’s what he did. But when it came to the Tropical Hut, he said it would take so much just to save it. “The building itself, I believe, was only built in the 50s so it’s not like a historical, hundred and something-year-old building either.”

It’s also alright to acknowledge the shock. One day it’s there. The next, no evidence of its existence. Phil admits himself there was a part of him that was shocked the next day to see it suddenly gone.

“One of the reasons I left the big slab there, for now, is so all the surrounding businesses can use it.” Patrons can for now, eat at tables in the spot the Tropical Hut once stood. “I’ll just keep working towards getting approval to put something really cool there.”

Smith continued, “Everybody has great memories of Crystal Beach and all the particular businesses. You hear about the Ontario Hotel,” which Smith is re-doing, as well, “Small Fry Restaurant, Cronfelts, Tropical Hut. I’ve heard incredible stories and I love them. I will do my best to sort of pay tribute to those memories, pay tribute to the past by the way I do the buildings moving forward.”

Phil stated with great sensitivity, “It’s one thing to remember the past. It’s another to be stuck in the past. The park closed in 1989, over 30 years ago now. I’m old enough to have memories of the park as it was winding down. But anyone younger than me doesn’t have those connections, doesn’t have those memories, and I think that as the park becomes further and further in the background, the village will have to re-invent itself. So, if I can parlay that history into this kickstart as we re-invent the village, I think that’s a great thing for Crystal Beach.”

When talking about what it is that has brought people to the village, it’s a social and laid back environment, its charming feel, its quaint, small-town vibe, “I don’t want to lose that. You never want to lose what your identity is in the first place. How can we grow in a way that doesn’t radically change what made us Crystal Beach in the first place? It’s a balancing act.”

Mackinac Island, Michigan has been his inspiration. “It’s one of my favourite places I’ve been to. One of their claims to fame is that there are no cars on the island. They use bicycles. It’s eight miles around and is a really cool and colourful location.” Phil added he’s trying to replicate ideas he’s seen in his travels.

When talking about the seasonal tourists, “The sand is what gets people here. We’re now giving people a reason to stick around, check out the village and shop. Interesting architecture, colourful buildings, things that are Instagram-able and picture-worthy.”

And when talking about the residents, “I think the key, moving forward, and the re-development of a village like this is to have people living amongst the businesses. To have a walkable, bikeable community. I haven’t seen this for years. My idea of a good village would be a place where somebody comes home from work Friday night and doesn’t move their car again until Monday morning.”

His words echoed the comments made by the business owners and residents of the next generation I spoke with. “Anyone who is younger than me, their memories are of boarded up, old buildings that have been there for thirty years. We have our memories. And now there’s a chance to make new memories.”

Phil looks forward to continuing to develop. “But I’m just a one-man band here. I’m not a big company. It’s just me. So I have to work at a certain pace and do what I can.

A pitch to make Erie Road a weekend one-way

According to the Town of Fort Erie’s Let’s Talk webpage, “To better enhance business opportunities within Fort Erie, the Crystal Beach Business Improvement Area (CBBIA) has submitted an application to the Town of Fort Erie requesting the north side of Erie Road be temporarily closed on weekends throughout the summer months of 2021.

“The request to turn Erie Road into a one-way street will start at Ridgeway Road and end at Schooley Road. Pedestrians will have access to the north side of the street with vehicles occupying the south side of Erie Road.”

The Town of Fort Erie’s Director of Infrastructure, Kelly Walsh provided an update, “Erie Road will be converted to one-way traffic, from Ridgeway Road to Schooley Road, for the August long weekend. We will start Thursday afternoon and continue one way all weekend until Tuesday morning.

“The original proposal was for one-way traffic every weekend of the summer.” Walsh explained, “Traffic control is quite expensive. It’s not as simple as throwing out a bunch of pylons. We have to comply with MTO temporary condition standards. So, after a bunch of back and forth with the CBBIA, they chose to apply for a one-weekend closure, just to see how it goes. We will take the results from that, have discussions in the Fall and see where we can go for next year.”

Walsh shared that there have been a few concerns from the public on Let’s Talk Fort Erie about redirected traffic, “Certainly traffic will increase on Schooley Road and maybe a few of the other streets as well for the weekend.” He assured, “We will monitor it and see how it goes.”

Kelly commented about the concerns businesses and residents have about parking during this time. “For that weekend, we will lose all the parking spots on Erie Road where the north side is closed to vehicles, yes. In the big picture, we have a couple thousand parking spots down there. However, those 14 spaces that will be lost are strategic, so there may be an issue there.”

The long, narrow space across the street from Erie Road once was the parking lot for the amusement park. Now, it’s owned by the Crystal Beach Hill Cottagers Association. Walsh shared, “As soon as we can get the parking metres installed, that will be opened, certainly before the August long weekend. We’re looking into entering a long-term lease agreement with the Hill Cottagers to administer that parking area.”

On the ACB front

Orma Bleeks, President of Advancing Crystal Beach (ACB) shared a Crystal Beach brochure with a colourful, updated collection of businesses that have been re-done. This will make it easier to locate all local businesses, new and old. Look for a display of the brochure at the village businesses.

The Farmers Market is now relocated at Queen’s Circle on Sundays. Sandra Lyons with the CBBIA is now managing. New vendors are coming each week.

The ACB is in the midst of planning a major project. They would like to access the closing Crystal Beach Fire Station 6 to create a Recreation Centre for all ages. According to Orma, they have met with the Town of Fort Erie and will need to raise significant funds to purchase the fire station (approximately $600,000 plus; about $150,000 for renovations and first-year operating costs). The ACB circulated an interest survey via social media and e-mails and received 390 responses with over 80 people leaving their name and contact information as interested people who wish to participate in this plan.

When wrapping up my conversation with Phil Smith, he left me with a lasting impression that also left me looking forward to what’s to come. “The rejuvenation of Crystal Beach, and this vision of what I think it can be, that I’ve had for 15 years, is the last thing I think about before I go to bed and the first thing I think about when I wake up, and I probably dream about it in the middle.

“It’s a pleasure to have the good fortune to do this. It consumes me. I get so much satisfaction out of seeing it inch forward and see other people acknowledge it and want to be a part of it.”

Photos provided by Christine Whelan

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