$2.3M revitalization plan splits Bayfield 'down the middle'

·3 min read

A proposal to revamp Bayfield's downtown is dividing residents and business owners over the future of the Lake Huron village.

The debate over the Bayfield Main Street revitalization project is set to come to a head Wednesday at a virtual public meeting, with some locals saying the plan could strip the quaint village of its heritage charm.

“There’s a lot at stake for a lot of people here,” Bluewater Coun. Bill Whetstone said. “Our downtown is a reason why a lot of people come here or live here.”

A revitalization project has been on the Municipality of Bluewater’s books since the early 2000s, initially developed to address water pooling on Main Street sidewalks.

The existing gravel sidewalks present accessibility issues and create hazards including water ponding, mud and ice, a staff report says.

The proposed $2.3 million Main Street revitalization would see the gravel sidewalks switched to exposed aggregate concrete.

The plan also proposes drive-over curbs to access parking, a narrower roadway and wider boulevards, planting of more trees, unique “welcome mat” surface treatments in front of businesses, additional seating and lighting, along with greenspace “infiltration basins” to help collect storm runoff.

Whetstone said the municipality has received an outpouring of community feedback ahead of Wednesday’s meeting and will have to find a “compromise” and tweak the plan.

“We have to play with it to make sure we’re not getting too far away from what Bayfield is known for,” he said. “We don’t want it to look the same as any other downtown revitalization plan.”

Whetstone added common requests from locals have been to bury utility lines underground, something for which the current plan doesn’t budget, and to increase trees.

One major concern is that a construction project could be devastating for small businesses looking to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Whetstone promised construction wouldn't take place during peak summer months, adding “minimal work” could only begin this fall.

“We have to reach this balance in which we solve the problem of drainage and dirt, but yet not disrupt the charm,” said Stephen Baker, principal of the Virtual High School on Main Street and a Bayfield resident.

But defining charm is “nebulous,” he said, adding some locals want to keep the village’s “quiet, subdued nature,” while others see foot traffic and tourists as a necessity for businesses.

He said Bayfield doesn’t want to become a “cookie-cutter rendition” of other beach towns for the sake of added curbs and gutters.

“A lot of people are saying we’re going a little bit too far to solve our problems and we’re doing more than what’s required,” to fix the drainage issues, Baker said.

Lifelong Bayfield resident Tara Hessel said locals are “cut right down the middle” for and against the plan, with the sidewalk appearance a hot button issue.

“The hardest problem is some people aren’t accepting of change, and change is going to happen,” she said. “What some people are trying to do is stop it and keep Bayfield a secret … (but) the businesses need tourists to succeed.”

She said though some want to keep the gravel sidewalks for heritage, others feel it’s too messy, particularly when it rains and water pools.

Hessel said a plan that provides safe, accessible walkways but still preserves some heritage — she’s suggesting cobblestone, like in the village park — is needed.

“This a great opportunity for us to choose our change, make it a positive experience and make it better for the community.”

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Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press